Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Charming Comfort Book

When I read books I think are poorly done, I worry that I'm doing the same thing in my writing. When I read a very well-written book, I worry that I can't come close to doing anything as good.

As much as I enjoyed The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall, I felt bad all the time I was reading it because the one thing The Penderwicks on Gardam Street has going for it is that it is extremely well-written.

The Penderwick family originally appeared in The Penderwicks, which could be described as a retro vacation book. They're back in On Gardam Street in what could be called a retro family life book. The Penderwick girls are four lovely sisters who have a wonderful father and marvelous neighbors. They are concerned because their widowed dad is starting to date. Unable to face changing their lives by bringing in a stepmother, they set him up with women he's sure to hate. In the meantime, all four girls fall in love with the lovely and highly intelligent widow next door.

Sounds sweeter than yuck, doesn't it? It's not. There's a dry wit at work in this book, and the author creates a secure world where traditional child problems are overcome. The characters are well-defined. Though the story feels as if it's a throwback to the forties or fifties, it is firmly rooted in the present with its girl soccer players, academic women, and divorced and widowed parents. It's as if Birdsall took classic (or stereotypical, depending on your point of view) child characters and gave them a new life in the twenty-first century. You've got your older sister taking on the role of mother for her siblings. You've got the girl scientist and the girl writer and the girl preschooler. You've got the boy athletes next door. You've got the father who knows best--and knows Latin, too.

Birdsall writes in the third person and she doesn't use a point-of-view character, which really distinguishes her writing. She moves from one sister's interior world to another without having to tip readers off to what she's doing with breaks in the text or slapping a name down on the page so we know who's observing things now. That isn't done much these days, particularly in children's fiction.

I do wonder if children will be as taken with these books as I am. I asked at one of my listservs and was told by some librarians that while the Pendericks' stories are not wildly popular with kids, they have a following.

I have to also say that there was a painful aspect to reading On Gardam Street, too. The oldest Penderwick girl is twelve years old. This adult reader knows that soon stuff is going to happen. All the time I was reading, I couldn't help thinking of all the heartbreak that's occurred in the families of teenagers on my own street. The Penderwick books are really about moments, lovely moments, that in real life don't last forever.

In fact, in real life we'd be expecting to see something that could end up in a book called The Penderwicks in Hell.


Anonymous said...

Heh. You made me laugh three times-- sentences 1 & 2, and paragraph 8-- which was a wonderful gift at this particular point...

I'll have to read this book, if I can possibly get past the burning issue in sentence 2.

Best of luck with draft #8, by the way!

Anonymous said...

My just-10 yr old daughter has both Penderwick books and loves them to bits, but she doesn't know anyone else who has read them (apart from me!)

I agree that they are skilfully written and rather timeless in their setting, and a decent break from all the fantasy (good as some of it is) that is stacked up on shelves for this age-group.