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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE got a little introductory discussion here, and crops up on many of your favorites in comments, usually next to the verb “love.”

This is the perfect example of a book that I appreciate despite myself. I don’t love it. I have a hard time with it, in fact.  And yet, I also have a hard time disputing its distinguished qualities, and a hard time qualifying my own feelings as anything more than personal taste.   And it is true, that while I have a hard time picking it up, and don’t seem to miss it when I put it down, when I’m in it I’m enthralled, and tickled, and moved.  

This is because Birdsall is an expert storyteller, and expert in the way that doesn’t show stictches.  It’s hard to pull out sentences for admiration in the way I like to do.  Kind of like an opera cake, it’s spectacular for the way it’s all stuck together and present.  

Someone else pointed to the simplicity of the plot here. It’s actually an amalgalm of the two “only” plots (Penderwicks go on a journey; Stranger “Alec” comes to town). It holds true to them, and is paced accordingly:  the climax of the “stranger” plot (the parent revelation) coincides with the “journey” climax (Skye stepping adeptly into her OAPdom when it really counts. That scene with Dexter is one of my favorites).   The structure is tame, and solid, but interesting, and Birdsall is able to heap upon it plenty of detail of character (are any of the many undeveloped?) and setting. Jonathan said: “If the Newbery Medal were given for how much I enjoyed a book, or how I much loved the characters, then this could probably top my list.”

So what’s my problem? It’s the too-good-to-be-true factor in regard to the characters.  Not the plot.  I think the plot is as tight as a freshly painted tugboat, and the coincidence involving Alec is just part of that charm.   It’s the fact that the characters are ultimately a little hyper- in their quirks.  Jane’s romanticism. Batty’s empathy.  Jeffrey’s ability to say exactly the right thing to Batty.  And amazingly articulate as well.  This is all part of Birdsall’s chanelling of the “classics,”…there’s some Nesbit in the tone of adventure, a little Narnia in the sibling relationships, a lot of Anne of Green Gables embodied as a split personality btwn Skye and Jane…  This is I think what either strongly appeals to, or strongly turns off, adults.  (I think the same dynamic is present, actually, in the film Hugo, which requires that the tone rings true for the viewer for it to work.)  So: I have to remember the child reader who’s looking for that Technicolor feeling, and doesn’t pick up on the alusions because Birdsall has claimed her own territory, rightly and well.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. What I find remarkable in the style of this book is way Birdsall is able to move in and out of the different sister’s perspectives without confusing the reader. So much about this book feels effortless, but must have taken some fairly tricky jigsaw work to fit it all together so the seems don’t show.

  2. Yes, “effortless” is a great word to describe it, and I also appreciated the fine-tuning of each character’s voice, body language, anxieties, etc. The whole first chapter is pretty wonderful, if you read the first two paragraphs of the book you’ve got pretty much all the plot backstory you need if you haven’t read the others….and then she uses that evolving scene from Rosalind’s POV to give you a little snapshot of each sister, for the character backstory. I was only disappointed that we get a cliffhanger of a suggested romantic goodbye with Tommy…but we don’t get to witness it.

  3. Sara Ralph says:

    I have been a great fan of THE PENDERWICKS, and successfully championed to have the first novel added to the NC Elementary Battle of the Books list. This one left me feeling flat.

    Alec being Jeffrey’s father was just too much of a coincidence and kind of hard to swallow. Who just accidentally happens upon their biological father that way? Reminds me, although to a lesser extent, of the not-quite-believable circumstances in OKAY FOR NOW. It kind of feels like the author is betraying the reader by destroying a world that is realistic. This feels especially so when it is a sequel or companion novel.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not that we’re comparing POINT MOUETTE to the other Penderwick books for the purposes of Newbery consideration, but I liked this one better than the second book, and as much (or perhaps more) than the first one. It’s hard for me to compare the first and the third because of Rosalind’s absence. I do love it when the books are set during the summer. (Note to Jeanne: all future Penderwicks books must be set during the summer!)

    I wouldn’t characterize either OKAY FOR NOW or THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE as realistic fiction, but simply as fiction. I think both books set a tone that prepares the reader for the coincidences and improbable happenings. For me, the difference is that there’s the one big reveal in PENDERWICKS while there are a half dozen things in OKAY FOR NOW. It just pushed the latter book slightly over the top for me. I felt like it was an eyelash away from becoming Frank Cottrell Boyce’s COSMIC and that we would find them on a rocket ship headed into outer space if the book had gone on any longer.

  5. Elle Librarian says:

    I’ve read all the Penderwicks books and absolutely adored the first two. I was expecting to feel the same about the third and literally counted down the time to when my pre-ordered copy arrived. But, like Sara, I just couldn’t muster quite the same feelings for this one. The whole scenario with Jeffrey’s father just felt completely contrived and unrealistic. And yes, as a reader, I could see it coming. But, that didn’t make it any more acceptable to me. As much as I want to, I just can’t put this one in my top 10.

    For the same reasons, I have some problems with OKAY FOR NOW as well. It makes me wonder a bit that you were all ready to dismiss JEFFERSON’S SONS from your “top books” because it felt unbelievable to you (which I did not perceive this), but you are ready to accept the “hard to swallow” qualities in these two.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    You know, I completely understand your reaction and am not really trying to change anybody’s mind on this point. The reveal is definitely over the top, but I think Birdsall not only foreshadows it, but creates a tone in the narrative that induces belief in the reader. Schmidt does this, too, but that’s not my criticism of him. My criticism of Schmidt is editing: less is more. His tone earned the right to a few improbabilities, but not *that* many. I like PENDERWICKS better than OKAY FOR NOW, but I haven’t committed to vote for either of them just yet.

    My chief criticism of JEFFERSON’S SONS, on the other hand, is not that it stretches credibility–at least not in the way that Schmidt and Birdsall are doing. Unlike them, Bradley is very much trying to create a scrupulously realistic story. My chief criticism of JEFFERSON’S SONS is the didacticism (that the moral instruction is not worked convincingly into the fabric of the novel), but still worse, as evidenced by my latest post, I feel like the book is manipulative.

  7. I really think this Penderwicks book is the best of the three in style, characterization, setting, plotting. I think it only works if you approach it with the knowledge that there’s this incredible coincidence at the center of it and move on from there. Because it IS the center, and the only reason for the book existing–the book is built around that coincidence. That’s different, to my mind anyway, from a book being peppered with unlikely events. Or from a book that has a central plot that wouldn’t “work” if it weren’t for a coincidence–like the author threw it in to make his/her story work out right. Lots of great books are built around a central coincidence. (Not that I think this is a Great book–it isn’t in my top list either–but I think it’s a good one, and a much better reading experience when you accept the plot and move on.” Actually, once I accepted the plot, I found this book far more believable than the first two.

    In Jefferson’s Sons Jonathan (and others) had trouble believing in the characters and dialogue, as I recall, rather than the plot, which is a very different thing.

  8. I’m with Jonathan about Birdsall setting the right tone for the coincidence to work. How many times has THE PENDWICKS been compare to the classics of younder days? Having read and loved every ANNE book in exisistance I understand completely that a stranger in town equals long lost relative and sloppy-slurppy reunion. Bring it on, I say.

    I’m also on board with every coincidence in OKAY FOR NOW, Schmidt’s tone seemed less realistic fiction and more realistic fairy tale. I understand it could have been shorter but it never felt long to me the way NORVELT did, and for that matter JEFFERSON’S SONS, (which I still have 200+ pages to read by tomorrow’s book club. Just beat me with the ditactic stick and put me out of my misery. )

  9. Oh and Johnathan, if only, if only, Gary Schmidt had thought to have Doug and Lil stowaway aboard Apollo 11, it would have be the ending of the century.

  10. That’s hilarious, because my fifth graders thought Doug should sneak Lil on because they assumed she was dying!!!

  11. Since some people are commenting about OKAY FOR NOW…

    I’m listening to it on audiobook, and am newly totally impressed with how strong it is. Mind you, I just finished the 4th of 7 CDs. So I haven’t gotten to the things people felt were unrealistic.

    But I’m seeing so much craft in this part. I’d forgotten how brilliant it is. The way the birds reflect what’s happening in Doug’s life. The way the whole town thinks he’s like his brother. The way his Mom’s eye is like the eye of the mother bird. The slowly slowly developing friendship with Lil.

    It also struck me as significant that the events that really pack a punch all happen on the 4th CD — right smack in the middle. The school finds out about his secret. He meets Mr. Big Bucks Ballard. He stands up to his Dad. He recovers the first Audubon print. His brother does something nice for him. That’s some nice structuring.

  12. “Thirding it” about the tone of The Penderwicks at Point Mouette providing for improbability. I don’t think this big coincidence is all that different from the one in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street. How likely is it, really, that their new neighbor would just happen to be a brilliant, kind astrophysicist who can relate to each of the sisters in their own way, and who also hates to cook? This is not the real world. This is sepia-toned fantasy (and I love it all the same).

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    As I mentioned, I enjoyed reading this book as much as any middle grade fiction this year, and I find that it has distinguished qualities across the board, yet I balk at describing it as *most* distinguished in any single element. On first readings, I saw OKAY FOR NOW and A MONSTER CALLS as its stiffest competition, but I have about a half dozen novels that I’d want to reread (DEAD END IN NORVELT, BLUEFISH, PIE, THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING, THE FREEDOM MAZE, plus anything else I might come across in this last month). If I reread them, weigh them holistically, and still find that nothing separates from the pack, then why not go with the one I enjoyed the most? I don’t think it is one of the Great Ones, but it would be a good reader’s advisory Newbery because I think I could get more readers for this one than OKAY FOR NOW (the length, people, the length!) and A MONSTER CALLS.

  14. I loved the Penderwicks also, but wonder if it’s because I’m a veteran librarian and not a young person. I don’t think they have wide appeal among students.

  15. When I read this one originally I thought it was great, but not my favorite of the three Penderwick books. After rereading it, the second time aloud, I changed my mind.

    I don’t have a problem with the coincidence in the plot. Strange things like this happen in life, and it is only ONE strange thing. (Unlike OFN where the “whoa really?” parts just start piling up). I don’t think the coincidence here makes the plot unrealistic at all. (I do agree with Rachael that the books over all is a “sepia-toned fantasy”. LOVE that description.) But that one facet in particular does not make it unrealistic. Coincidences happen in life, big ones that can’t always be explained. The plot was crafted well enough from the beginning that Birdsall prepared the reader to accept it. And like Wendy said, the entire plot was built around the coincidence. I agree with her that there is a difference in that and throwing in a random coincidence because your plot doesn’t work otherwise.

    Another strength of the book is, like DaNae said above, how Birdsall moves the narrative between the sisters so effortlessly and how each of them has her own distinct voice despite the third person narration.

    I am also one whose problem with Jefferson’s Sons wasn’t believability, but the didactic tone. I also couldn’t see a distinction between Maddy’s voice and Peter’s voice.

  16. I am a children’s librarian, and recommend the Penderwicks books to many of the kids, who uniformly love it. None of them have complained about the coincidence in PAPM, because children’s literature (and other media) is rife with heartwarming things of this nature. Suspension of disbelief is not an issue for people who are of an age to believe in Santa, fairies, Martians, etc.

  17. Thank you, Nina, for finally putting a finger on what bothered me! The quirky-ness is overdone for me as well; and on the other end of the spectrum I can totally see some of my students loving it for the very same reason.

  18. I’m willing to allow one TV-movie-style coincidence in a book as good as PENDERWICKS; what I couldn’t get over was the Jeffrey/Alec reactions after the reveal. Jeffrey is supposed to be a sensitive, thoughtful, kind, etc etc, kid, and his reaction to Alec, and Alec’s reaction to him, sounded more like the strained relationship between teenage lovers than reunited father and son. That spoiled the otherwise believable emotional lives of all of these characters for me.

  19. What’s the deal with The Freedom Maze, Jonathan? You’ve mentioned it as one of your top choices a few times but only in passing, Nina panned it on Goodreads, it’s got great blurbs, no one else has read it at all. My library doesn’t have it yet and I bet a lot don’t even have it on order. Should they?

    I’m curious, if you want to share, what’s still on your to-read list for a first time read… I get the impression that there are some good books you haven’t read yet. What’s your priority at this point, rereading good prospects or reading new ones?

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ll probably do a separate post on FREEDOM MAZE in late December or early January. It’s got some good buzz, but it’s a small press, so I think availibility will be limited, and that will hurt our ability to discuss it. Some people will be bothered by the baggage that comes when white people try to write about ethnic minorities. I can understand that, but I’m not sure that I agree with it–or that I agree with *all* of it, I should say. There’s a certain fearless quality to this book that I absolutely adore. But there are parts that didn’t quite work for me, too. Hence, the need for a rereading.

    I’m trying to juggle review books, committee reading, rereading our shortlisted titles, and seeking out unread books. Once my three week holiday break starts at the end of next week, I’ll be able to catch up on a lot of these titles that have been mentioned. I need to finish THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT and THE SCORPIO RACES which I had to put down for other things that were more pressing. Here’s what I’m interested in. Whether I actually read (or at least finish) these remains to be seen: ICEFALL, BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, DRAGON CASTLE, WHEELS OF CHANGE, EDDIE’S WAR, CITY OF ORPHANS, THE SILVER BOWL, FIVE 4THS OF JULY, SILHOUETTED BY THE BLUE, ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET, NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT, THE ROMEO AND JULIET CODE, SAINT LOUIS ARMSTRONG BEACH, PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL.

  21. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I will try to take some time soon to put a full review up at Goodreads on The Freedom Maze. It will be an ugly knockout discussion btwn me and Jonathan here, and I’ve been refraining from kicking up dust yet on something that’s not on our shortlist. A little later. I didn’t post a full review on the Goodreads site b/c I thought people still hadn’t had a chance to read it, and I don’t like to dump negativity that would push people away from trying it themselves and forming their own opinions. I’ll say this here: that the number of amazing blurbs kind of sent up a red flag to me, and if you look at the acknowledgements you’ll note that some of these well known blurbers seem to be in the author’s writing group.

    Still on my to read list? Plenty. Several of the ones that got knocked around here I only read part-way into …far enough to know if I needed to finish to consider for the shortlist. So I’ll be returning, and finishing them up (finishing ICEFALL now, ORANGE ST., several of the nonfiction that we didn’t quite place) …and I also want to catch up on some of the YA end that I didn’t have time to do justice. (Hope everyone here is also following!) And the new Haruki Murakami, dang it.

    Frankly though, all those fall by the wayside for something interesting that I come across that no one has mentioned. I will never be able to read all the buzzed contenders. I’m a slow reader, and I find that buzz does not correlate well with what is actually really good. In fact, the hardest part of developing the shortlist is to make sure we’re paying attention to what you all are mentioning, but then also making sure we ignore the titles that keep on getting mentioned and search around for the less-talked about books. Buzz generally shoots some strong ones to the top (WHEN YOU REACH ME), and then a lot of popular, well-done stuff by repeat authors, or heavily-marketed newbies. Those two things CAN correlate with quality, but they leave out a lot of it. I like to troll the single-vote getters on the Goodreads Newbery list…

  22. I’m trying to remain nonchalant about the fact that you both have ICEFALL on your radar still. But I’m about to explode from the anticipation of the discussion.

  23. Mark Flowers says:

    Getting back to the Penderwicks, although I know the committee won’t discuss past winners, I wonder if we could discuss some of the issues people have brought up in relationship other winners. For example: THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY, in which the coincidences are given almost mystical importance, or A YEAR DOWN YONDER which fairly oozes with the “sepia-toned” nostalgia. I don’t mean to start a war in which we all call out the flaws of past Newbery winners–I just note that the specific issues we’re discussing clearly haven’t impeded the chances of books in the past.

    Also, a point of order: Jonathan says he can’t say that PAPM is the MOST distinguished in any one quality. Does it have to be? If, for argument’s sake there is a separate book which is obviously the MOST distinguished in each separate category, but each has other gaping flaws, can’t we decide to give the medal to the book with the best “all-around” distinguishness?

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mark, yes, you are absolutely right. PENDERWICKS can win the decathlon even if it doesn’t win any single event. I’m not necessarily sure it doesn’t win any single event; I just can’t say that based on one reading way back when, and I look forward to rereading it during my break. Realistically, there is often no single book in any category that is most distinguished in any element, but probably several. Then, too, being distinguished is only half the equation, the other half is consensus.

  25. Sara Ralph says:

    Nina – I think disliking a book (and especially those where people have a heated debate) makes people want to read it to see if they agree with you or not. I found that to be true with JEFFERSONS’ SONS. I have read the problems you and Jonathan have had with it, but instead of turning me off, they have made me more intrigued about reading it.

  26. Genevieve says:

    Rebecca, Jeffrey’s reaction to learning about Alec didn’t seem unlikely to me. Even a sensitive, kind kid could have a very strong reaction to such worldview-changing news, and all the blame he probably placed on the unknown person for years suddenly had a real-life target.

  27. Many, maybe even most of the people I know who have read Point Mouette haven’t liked Jeffrey’s reaction to the discovery. I don’t get it. It’s truly the only possible reaction that makes sense to me as what a real boy would think and do; anything else would have rung false. Or at least that’s how it seemed, reading the book. Sure, it isn’t logical for Jeffrey to by angry with Alec (rather than just with his mother), but there’s nothing logical about his anger. Birdsall doesn’t present it as logical. Kids get angry with their parents for dying. Kids get angry with their birth parents for “giving them away” even when they have happy lives with their parents. Jeffrey’s story, while sort of outlandish, would seem to fall into the same range of emotions.

  28. This is such a girl book, sorry, and Jeffrey’s reaction to learning his father’s identity was the classic woman writer writing about a boy through the lens of female emotions and experience. I didn’t buy it for a minute. The only thing all that drawn-out melodrama did for me was to cause me to lose fondness for previously beloved characters (Jeffrey and Skye).

  29. Martha, I have to disagree with you when you say this is such a “girl” book. The packaging of all the Penderwick books screams “girl” book I’ll agree, but I had a group of 4-6 graders I teach (there are 6 of them , 4 boys) read the first book this year. One of them said, “When we got this book and I saw the cover I thought it was going to be lame but it’s actually pretty awesome.” Two of the boys have gone on and read the other two books on their own and enjoyed them very much.

    I think Jeffrey’s reaction was the only one he could have possibly had. He is still very young and would have been experiencing some seriously confusing emotions.

  30. Brandy, not sure you can claim absolutely that “Jeffrey’s reaction was the only one he could have possibly had.” Just off the top of my head I can offer: Jeffrey could have welcomed such a perfect-for-him dad and taken his anger out on his mother instead; he could have been upset but tried to hide his feelings; he could have talked with his friends about the situation right away and asked for their help. Lots of choices for me. I guess what’s important is that the author convinced you that his reaction was the only plausible one. I, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced.

  31. Martha you are correct. That statement was far too sweeping. The correct way is to say that I was covinced it was the way and here is why: Jeffrey had always dreamed of the scenario going down differently. His idea was unrealistic but the idea was a comfort to him for years and he no longer had that comfort but had to face the reality of his sutuation and it was too much for his young mind to process. I think it was clear he was also very angry at his mother but to be solely angry at her (which is a more logical response) would have, I think, made him feel guilty. Jeffrey has a complicated relationship with his mom but he doesn’t despise her like the girls do. She is mother. It was simply too much for his 12 year old mind to deal with and I think his isolating himself to try to sort it out made perfect sense. As close as he is to the girls, he is used to dealing with emotional things on his own. He was doing it for 11 years before he met them. I also can’t see a scenario where he would mask his emotions fitting Jeoffrey’s character. Well I can see it, but I’m glad it didn’t play out that way because it would have felt like a regression. Acting one way while thinking another was what he spent all the first book breaking away from.

    Hopefully I explained myself better this time. :)

    Sorry if this is riddled with errors. I’m typing this on my iPod which is not optimal for editing.

  32. I was also bewildered by Jeffrey’s reaction. Sure, it would make perfect sense, both logically and emotionally, to be furious at a father who abandoned you. But Alec didn’t even know that Jeffrey existed. A 12-year-old, especially one as empathic as Jeffrey repeatedly shows himself to be, can understand the difference. Not that he wouldn’t be overwhelmed and need to be by himself to sort everything out — but the fury seems misplaced. He is also mature enough to realize and acknowledge that his mother, no matter how beloved, is the one at fault. To many a child reader’s surprise, that obvious fact isn’t mentioned, even by Skye.

  33. Beverly–that’s just what I was trying to get at. Thanks for expressing it so well!

  34. Beverly, I agree with you on Jeffrey’s ultimate empathetic ability…but if he *hadn’t* been horribly shocked, and taken his time (it didn’t take him long) to get to a point of understanding, *then* I would have felt this was unrealistic.

    This is a very girly book, but since Jeffrey’s character plays the role of a girl-reader’s idealized “brother” character…and since boy/girl generalizations are only that…I don’t have a problem at all with Jeffrey’s reaction.

    Remember that one of the reason’s he’s most upset is that he’s had a fantasy of knowing his father on sight, as soon as he meets him. The fact that this didn’t happen means Jeffrey feels a little stupid, and taken by surprise, and that can make a person angry.

    The only thing that didn’t quite ring true for me…which Beverly brings up…is that there wasn’t more anger directed at the mother in this revelation. All I can chalk it up to is that he’d already written her off…and that Birdsall didn’t want to swamp an already complicated emotional climax with more baggage. Still, probably could have been done better.

  35. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Maybe Jeffrey and Conor can arrange a play date . . .

  36. Mark Flowers says:

    As a card-carrying member of the male-reader-community (what, girl readers don’t have cards? I guess that’s what makes us so manly), I just want to briefly address the issue of this being a “girly” book. First, despite the 3 (or 4) female leads in the book, I think that the sisters are so varied in interests and ideas as to leave plenty of room for boys (and men!) to identify with them. Second, Jeffrey and his reaction to the revelation ring incredibly true to me as a formerly painfully shy, smart 10-year-old. As an adult I was screaming at him to get over it, but my inner child reminded me that this would have been a very normal reaction for me at that age.

  37. I just got the book for my library, and haven’t had a chance to try it out on any children yet. Has anybody who knows a child who read it asked what the child thought about Jeffrey’s behavior? Mark’s point about what he thinks as an adult clashing with how he would have reacted as a child is a good one.

    (And, yes, we do have cards. Delicate pink cards, with a spray of pinker roses and blue cornflowers, and our names printed in thin clear type. By Mr. Hopp.) (Points to anybody who recognizes these…)

  38. Laura Ingalls’ cards from one of the later books when they lived in town (Little Town on the Prairie, I’m guessing). Though my boy liked the Wilder books as a kid (but the town ones weren’t as interesting to him, so we may have stopped shortly after Long Winter).

  39. For me, reading the Penderwicks is sitting in front of a roaring fire, curling up on a window seat on a rainy day, eating chicken nooodle soup, and going to sleep with a teddy bear. Maybe it is a “guilty pleasure” as it reminds me of my favorite books as a kid – like the Boxcar Kids and old school Nancy Drews. Reguardless, I love it.

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