When Jeanne Birdsall’s first middle grade novel The Penderwicks was published in 2005 it committed a crime. A crime shared, I might add, by books written by authors like Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, and even Jeff Kinney. They say no good deed goes unpunished. Well, the creation of The Penderwicks was a good deed to children across the world in need of great fiction that’s homey and familiar without being cloying. Books that are touching a meaningful but never saccharine. In creating such a book Ms. Birdsall followed in her predecessors’ footsteps and did something unforgiveable: she made it look easy. Nothing could be worse. Imitators weren’t immediate, but as time has gone by they’ve cropped up like so many unwanted dandelions. Now librarians must wade through the lot of them in the desperate hope that maybe one or two will be worth recommending. It’s no good to say a book is “the next Penderwicks” or “Penderwicks meets [blank]”. Nothing quite compares to the original and that stands true with this, the third Penderwick chapter. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette takes readers slightly out of their comfort range but not so far that they feel adrift. Everything you expect out of a Penderwick novel is here. It just happens to be done better by this author than any other you might name.
“The Penderwick family was being torn apart.” Nuff said. Maybe torn apart is a bit of an exaggeration. You see, with the recent marriage of their father to that perfectly nice Iantha, the family suddenly finds itself going in three different directions. The parental Penderwicks are going to England on a honeymoon for two weeks while Rosalind goes to New Jersey during that time with a friend. That leaves the remaining three girls to join their Aunt Claire at Point Mouette, in a lovely little coastal cottage. Their pleasure at the thought is daunted somewhat by the discovery that their best honorary brother Jeffrey will not be joining them. More shocking still, with Rosalind out of the picture, Skye is automatically the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) and she is not pleased with the responsibility that entails. Fortunately there are enough dog related mishaps, skateboarding cool guys, musicians, golf balls, moose, and more to distract the remaining Penderwicks from their problems. Particularly when a friend needs their help.
Part of the lure of the Penderwick books is the fact that when you dive into one of them you are verily engulfed in a kind of instantaneous flood of words that feel (forgive me but there’s no other way of saying this) classic. You could read a Penderwick novel after a book by Elizabeth Enright, say, or Maud Hart Lovelace and the sole blip on your radar might be to notice that the language in the Penderwick book sounds less outdated than in the others. There is no effective way of replicating this feel in a novel. Lord knows it’s been attempted before and the results are almost always lamentable (the acoustical equivalent of celebrities trying to write picture books that sound like Dr. Seuss). Ms. Birdsall pulls it off without ever sounding forced or precious. And yet you never feel like the books take place in the past. Cell phones exist in this world but they do not take precedence. Each sister here reads (respectively) Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, and (quite exciting) Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson, as well as the books of Neil deGrasse Tyson (causing me to wonder why Mr. Tyson hasn’t gotten into the world of publishing science books for kids). Even the twist in this book, one that the adults may see coming, works. I say this with some surprise since before the reveal I thought about it and then said to myself, “Nah. That couldn’t be what’s going to happen. You couldn’t get away with that kind of thing.” Well get away with it the author does. I’m not entirely sure how, since it’s a coincidence straight out of a Shakespearean play, but if you buy it when the Bard does it, why not buy it when the Birdsall does?
Since it’s been three years since Ms. Birdsall released the last Penderwick title, I wondered if I’d be able to plunge headlong back into that world without perusing the previous books to remind me of the pertinent details. I needn’t have worried. Standing entirely on its own, Point Mouette manages in the span of two or three pages to catch the reader up perfectly. The characters are so crisp and clear on the page that it’s a wonder they don’t physically pull themselves out of the book and strut about a bit. However, with this novel I began to notice aspects of their personalities I hadn’t really picked up on before. For example, it’s fun to sit down and notice how many characters mention that they don’t want to discuss their innermost problems with Skye. Having a sister like Skye is infinitely useful (particularly when facing unwanted persons) but you don’t always want to face her dead-on honesty when your heart is feeling low. I also noticed some insights into the character of Rosalind, though she is hardly even a part of this book. Her departure, actually, felt a bit like one of the later Narnia books, where Peter and Susan were too old for the adventures. But even without her presence, the mere implied existence of the eldest Penderwick led me to believe that many people know a Rosalind of their own. The kind of person you hide information from so that they won’t worry their good little hearts out about it. Also the kind of person who creates rules for their absent boyfriends “though she knew better than to give them to him.”
Which sort of naturally leads into the ways in which Ms. Birdsall manages to give deep insightful glimpses into character while still remaining true to their ages and personalities. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Jane is trying to come up with a good boy name for one of her characters. She thinks Dylan would be nice name but remembers that Batty has a beef with it. Says Jane, “ ‘Sorry. That’s the name of the boy who poured glue on you at day care, right?’ ‘He poured glue on everybody,’ said Batty darkly.” There’s something about a very small child saying something darkly that just amuses me considerably.
There’s nothing like having your expectations so high that a book can’t live up to them . . . and this is nothing LIKE having your expectations so high that a book can’t live up to them. Sure there’s a bit of a lull halfway through in the action, which may cause the reader to wonder where exactly the story is going. Lulls are fine, though. They pass. In this case, quite thoroughly. If you’ve someone who’d like to be introduced into this world for the first time or someone who’s been reading the books straight through, it makes no difference. Both will enjoy this newest Penderwickian challenge. Both will be intrigued and pleased. Both will love it. You will too for that matter. There is something infinitely satisfying about seeing someone working at the top of their game. Ms. Jeanne Birdsall could well be the poster child for that satisfaction. A fun fun book.
On shelves May 10th.
Source: Galley sent for review from the author.
Misc: A lovely interview of Ms. Birdsall by Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast in which the writer discusses not only this book, but some plans for the future ones as well. There is also a very pretty photograph of the real Point Mouette. Worth checking out.