Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Retro Book With A Contemporary Feel

Well, I've read, and liked, another award winner. I hope I'm okay.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall won the National Book Award in 2005. It's another book I didn't seek out but stumbled upon.

Like Criss Cross, The Penderwicks seems to harken back to an earlier time. A time when families spent their vacations relaxing in a rental home instead of driving from place to place. A time when kids spent their summers running around outdoors. A time when siblings felt connected to one another.

Unlike Criss Cross, however, The Penderwicks is set in the present. There's no need to "get" pop-culture references from another decade in order to enjoy the story.

The four motherless Penderwick girls are all strong characters and, perhaps, just a little too good to be true. But in spite of this goodness, they still face problems--first love for the twelve-year-old, dashed literary hopes for a younger sister, incredible shyness for the four-year-old who, as the preschooler, is different from the other girls. And everyone is worried for their new friend, a wealthy boy whose mother just doesn't get him. (Yeah, the rich are always the heavies.)

Over the course of the last year I've sometimes read of people who just didn't understand what the big deal was about this book. Why was it so well-liked?

Well, the book is well-written. The characters are very clearly defined and the plot is definitely all about kids. Otherwise, I think perhaps this book was latched onto by reviewers and judges because so much of what is published these days (for everyone, not just kids) is genre fiction. I like genre fiction, but it does tend to follow predictable patterns. This book, simply by being a throw-back to Little Women and, perhaps, other pre-nineteen-fifties stories, is different. And it's not heavy with pretentious meaning the way so many award-winning children's books are.

Will kids like a story about sisters who worry about the family's honor and don't even mention a TV? I think so, because the story is so rooted in childhood and in playing. The Penderwicks is sophisticated, good quality writing that should be perfect for kids who, like the Penderwick girls, themselves, have not yet passed into the fires of adolescence. And it could be a comfort book for older kids who'd like to get away from the complications of their own lives for a few hours.


Little Willow said...

I absolutely loved The Penderwicks. Sweet and innocent, self-searching and curious, each girl with her own personality. So good.

I must say I didn't really care for Criss Cross. It was not horrible - it was decent. It was not poor - it was fine. I just didn't find it award-worthy/outstanding.

fusenumber8 said...

Like you, I too was a double threat. I greatly enjoyed Criss Cross AND Penderwicks. I got a lot of flack for my Penderwickian love. Admittedly, they're basically just the kids from Elizabeth Enright's, "The Saturdays" (and other books) but with one of the boys turned into a tomboy girl. Still, the two books shared something in common. Like Dandelion Wine, they're summertime books. They completely synthesize everything that's great for kids living in the country in the summer. I'm a sucker for that kind of story. Didn't hurt any that they were both particularly well-written to boot.