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Co-Authors and Sequels: Penderwicks 5 and a Zombie in a Chicken Suit

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BOB and PENDERWICKS AT LAST share this post because they each require a look at the  Newbery Terms and Criteria. These are clear in the way they apply to BOB…and a little trickier with PENDERWICKS. Also, both received two October nominations from Heavy Medal readers. And they both have chickens that must be reckoned with.

The Newbery Terms and Criteria clearly state that the award “may include co-authors.” If my count is correct, it’s happened with Honor books five times in the past: twice with siblings (1975, 1931) and three times with a married couple (1954, 1952, 1939). In the case of BOB, it’s two established authors getting together. In their interview with Horn Book, the co-authors reveal that it was Rebecca Stead who wrote the Livy chapters, while Wendy Mass did the Bob ones.

The alternating chapters work well. The Bob bits are very funny, especially in the beginning. It’s the Livy chapters that mostly develop the mystery, as she tries to figure out where Bob is from and why he’s there. So the two-author element really does make sense for the kind of book it is. Of course single authors use multiple points of view often, but the co-authoring here is clearly not just a novelty or gimmick.

The focus of the book shifts steadily. There’s the mystery, but also the overall tone moves from quirky and funny to explore deeper elements of family, friendship, and community. And we eventually learn that Bob’s story is tied to the seemingly unrelated story of the drought. I’m not sure all of that works seamlessly. Danny’s role is a little confusing…maybe if we had learned a little more about him?  But his actions did make sense within the plot.

It’s a fantasy with elements that are distinct and original…but also easy to follow if you’re eight or nine and maybe haven’t read fantasies more complex than The Kingdom of Wrenly or Princess in Black. This would make a great read aloud. A good discussion book. Some strong potential child appeal. Does it have a shot at the first shared Newbery in 44 years?

penderwicksatlastSince it’s the fifth book in the series, it’s worth going back to the Terms and Criteria to remind us what they say about sequels. The answer is: nothing directly. The committee is to “consider only the books eligible for the award” and “not to consider the entire body of the work by an author.” The most obvious interpretation of this is: don’t give PENDERWICKS AT LAST a medal because you thought PENDERWICKS should have won. There’s no direct reference to sequels or series, but it seems fair to also say: don’t give PENDERWICKS AT LAST a medal if you have to have read other books in the series in order to appreciate its distinguished elements. What it clearly doesn’t say, at least in my interpretation, is that the book must stand on its own, or that the reading experience must be the same whether or not the reader has read previous books. I tend to think of it as: does it work for both types of readers?

I read the first and third books of this series, but it’s been a while. I struggled in the beginning to keep track of characters, but that seems fine: it’s that kind of book, with a large eclectic group of characters who pop in and out. We gradually get to know most of them a little better, scene by scene. When events from the previous books are mentioned, it’s usually through Lydia, who didn’t experience them, so readers learn about them through her, which makes us feel less left out.  

We get to know Lydia, the main character, pretty quickly, and the others revolve around her. Though some readers will have met Mrs. Tifton and Jeffrey and Lydia’s older siblings, they’re so efficiently drawn here that we feel like we know them right away.  A supporting character like Wesley appears briefly, but we learn a lot about him, and the things we learn are specific enough (best dog ever; motorcycle; probably still loves Batty) that he seems real and distinct. 

The writing style is highly engaging. She just has such fun ways of putting things. I don’t think I laughed much as I read this, but I smiled often.

“[Jane] couldn’t let the threat of rain go unchallenged.
“The long range forecast is good,” said Jane.
“Perhaps.” Mrs. Tifton looked capable of summoning thunderstorms for Rosalind’s wedding.
And Jane looked capable of bopping their guest on the head.” (134-135)

“She made me a porcupine costume for a school play, and she made Jack a cricket costume. That wasn’t for a play. He just wanted to be a cricket.” (146)

She pushed herself to run her fastest and encouraged Alice to the the same. And both girls shrieked as they ran – Alice’s shrieks were superb – imploring Wesley not to leave until they reached him. (192)

That “Alice’s shrieks were superb”…somehow that’s just perfect. The characterizations and the consistently excellent language stand out for me. While so many individual scenes are effective, though, I’m not sure the whole thing holds together as strongly as it might. There’s not much plot tension, and some elements, like Lydia’s fear of ghosts, for example, feel inserted to keep things going forward. It’s possible that the double wedding and the hints about a Jefferey-Batty relationship might be more engaging to those who have read the whole series. But even then, it’s the plot that makes me most hesitant about this in Newbery terms…though I’ll definitely recommend it to readers and I’m now convinced that I really should go back and read #2 and #4.

 

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I read THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST from an advanced copy and I’ve heard (maybe here?) that Actual Plot Changes may have been made between the ARC and the finished book. If anyone knows the specifics of that, would you mind sharing details? I have not yet been able to check the finished book, and honestly it’s not at the top of my reading priority list.

    Based on the ARC I read, though, I wouldn’t say that it’s one of the strongest books of the year–I have deep affection for the Penderwick family and am always happy to see what they’re up to, but nothing about this one stands out to me as exceptional. I actually wonder if I’m inured to the series’s strengths because I’ve read all five books, and have been reading them since the first book came out over a decade ago. As a personal reader, I’m disappointed by some of the plot/character developments in this book–but those are fannish feelings, not “quality of the book as a book” feelings.

    I would LOVE to hear from someone who has read ONLY this book in the series, with little-to-no previous knowledge of the specifics of the rest of the series.

  2. Another one to toss into the co-author conversation is THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM, since that’s been suggested by a number of people. I’m curious to hear arguments for it. While I enjoyed it, I see its Newbery potential as very slim, since it relies heavily on the art of Chad Sell and is co-authored by ten different people.

  3. These were both books that I was hugely looking forward to based on previous works by the authors, and that I was ultimately a little disappointed in (perhaps as a direct result of my expectations being so high.)

    I was surprised when Steven said that the chapters were written by different authors, rather than being a team effort, because I found both of the characters’ voices to be very similar. If I put the book down in the middle of a chapter, when I picked it up again I’d have to check the chapter heading to see who was speaking.

    It was immediately obvious to me that the drought was connect to Bob, but I am in total agreement that for the target audience this was probably a gasp-worthy realization. However, the more I think about it, the less it all adds up. I saw it coming that Bob was from the well, so I was surprised when their visit to the well didn’t spark anything. But a visit to a different well did spark his memory, for no really coherent reason, despite the fact that he emerged from the first well. Plus, if all the wells are connected, such that his family didn’t know where to search for him, then why is the drought only affecting the part of Australia where Livvy’s grandmother lives? Shouldn’t it affect every part of the world connected to a well? Overall I felt it was a very good book, and definitely one that I would hand to budding fantasy readers, but it did not rise to the level of distinguished in terms of voice or plot development.

    Penderwicks was a lovely book, but it wasn’t compelling in the same way I found Just Like Jackie or Snow Lane or Front Desk or other character-focused stories from this year. My favorite bits were with the dog running around with various items in his mouth, rather than any particular character interaction. The girls seemed very young and naive, especially since they are both youngest children. My experience is that youngest children are more worldly, not less, as they are exposed to things through their older siblings or are trying to copy their mannerisms. Alice’s one-up-manship with her brother was funny, and I’d happily read a book about their family – I enjoyed the book, I just wasn’t overwhelmed by its standing in my mental Newbery list.

  4. I’m interested in hearing from people who have read two previous Newbery Medal winners: THE GREY KING and THE HIGH KING.

    I was told (quite explicitly) by a friend that these titles don’t stand alone – at least not very well – and if I wanted to truly enjoy them, I should read books 1-4 first. If that’s the case, then even if Penderwicks At Last wasn’t a standalone, would it still be considered?

    • I think the sticking point here becomes what it means to “truly enjoy” a book. It can be hard for someone who’s read an entire series, gets every in-joke, and notes with affection all the passing references to things that have come before to understand that someone who is reading a book “cold” can also enjoy the book, just in a different way.

      I loved The High King as much as I did because it was such the perfect final book in the series. Do I think that I would have found it incomprehensible and awful if I hadn’t read the first four books? Absolutely not! I think it would have felt distinguished even if it was the first one I’d read by that author. At the same time, do I think that I got *more* out of the book because I’d read the others? Absolutely yes! Despite that it’s far and away my favorite of the Prydain books, when I recommend them to others I still tell them to start with the first book (my least favorite) because the culmination of the series is so much more special if you’ve followed the entire journey.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Take Lydia’s meeting Jack (291-292) – I think even without prior knowledge, this is an exuberant, comic scene with Newbery-level writing in its pacing and delineation of voice through nuances of dialogue:

      “Some chicken,” she murmured.
      “What did you say?” he asked. “Are you babbling?”
      The hedge tunnel got more crowded—Alice had joined them.
      “Jack!” she said. “What did you do to Lydia? Why does she look dead?”
      “She kind of ran into my cast.”
      “Kind of! It looks like you slugged her with it. I wanted you to surprise her, not murder her. Lydia, Lydia, can you hear me? It’s Alice and my stupid brother.”
      “She’s not dead,” said Jack.
      “Not yet, anyway. She could be on her way out.”
      Lydia smiled, trying to reassure the Pelletiers that she wasn’t dying.
      “Now she’s smiling at you, Jack, so she’s probably brain-dead.”

      But as the end of the series, this additionally feels momentous and just full-circle perfect. So along the lines of what Alys and Steven are saying, I think this book is strong enough to enjoy and recognize as distinguished on its own, and I think what it does in the series should be counted not as a handicap but as an additional strength for those who know or decide to go back.

    • I’m not a librarian, teacher, or frequent commenter, but I am someone who read The Gray King for the first time as a third grader (and distinctly remember the experience, since I was home sick with the flu – a looong time ago). It was the first book I’d read by Susan Cooper and it does stand alone. At least, my exhausted woozy self had no problem following it. (I LOVED it. Still do.)

      For The High King – another book I love, and definitely the high point of the series – it’s better in context, but I think it does have enough information to stand alone. It just packs a more emotional punch when you remember the Assistant Pig-Keeper back in books one and two.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    I’ve read three 2018 books without having read any of their predecessors, Susan Cooper’s BOGGART FIGHTS BACK, Cynthia Voight’s TOAFF’S WAY, and Kathryn Lasky’s QUEST OF THE CUBS. I enjoyed two of them, but only one, TOAFF’S WAY, made me seek out the previous books. I think that last test might be useful, and in Steven’s case at least, THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST seems to have passed.

  6. Leonard Kim says:

    In regards to plotting in PENDERWICKS: I think it falls under the vacation book genre — protagonist in a new setting, meeting new people, trying to experience everything in a limited time until it’s time to go. I think such books are episodic by nature, and I think there is a long tradition of this sort of book in children’s literature, so I’m not sure they should be dinged for lack of tension. Another example from this year that I liked was Perkins’ SECRET SISTERS OF THE SALTY SEA, which is quite similar to THE PENDERWICKS in this respect.

    Within the genre confines, I think the plotting is extremely skillful, essentially being paced by the arrival of characters (Ben and Jane, Jeffrey, Wesley, Skye and Rosalind, etc. concluding with Jack) each creating new interactions that allow us to get to know the characters more. I know some readers have complained that, after the buildup, Birdsall skipped the wedding, but that plotting decision too is notable, thoughtful, and I think correct though I won’t get into that here.

    • steven engelfried says:

      Leonard’s words about the episodic nature of the vacation book genre are helpful. Based on that, I’m trying to adjust my expectations in terms of plot, but still struggling. I think what I’m looking for is not so much plot tension, but some sort of narrative arc. Some threads were introduced that I thought might provide something like that, but they were either resolved too easily or just kind of left there. A few examples:

      – Mrs. Tifton as a contrary force to be reckoned with: But Lydia charmed her and we knew she would and with Jeffrey grown up there’s not much Mrs. T. could do to wreck things anyway.
      – Lydia’s fear of ghosts: Didn’t really amount to anything and kind of seemed like just a vehicle for conversation (expertly written, highly entertaining conversations, but with limited plot impact).
      – Lydia as the Penderwick who likes everybody: A character trait which she wrestles with a bit,..but not that much.
      – Batty and Wesley’s relationship: Interesting and unresolved. Which feels fine given who they are and where they are in their lives….but it didn’t really move from where it was when we first learn about them.
      – The double wedding: I don’t think they needed to be described, but beyond the function of bringing the characters together in one place, they didn’t impact that much.
      – An emergency Meeting of Penderwick Siblings (MOPS): Fun, but I don’t think anything happened in this, did it?

      The scenes that make up those bits above were engaging and amusing, and developed multiple characters through actions and dialogue…all very well done. But I feel like I could have put down the book midway and not have missed that much except spending more time with these delightful characters. I agree that the pieces of the plot are skillfully rendered, but am still not convinced that the overall “development of a plot” is at a distinguished level.

      I can’t think of a good comparison from this year, so I’ll break Newbery rules and jump back a couple decades to another vacation book, Hilary McKay’s THE EXILES (not strictly a vacation for the girls, but works the same way). The most distinguished elements of that book are similar to PENDERWICKS AT LAST: distinctive characterizations, brilliant sentence level writing, excellent individual scenes. But those are framed by a broader plot arc built around the conflict between the sisters and their Big Grandma, which is, at least to some degree, resolved at the end. Maybe unfair, but I feel the lack of something similar in PAL.

      But all of the “maybe’s” and “I think’s…” in this post show that I haven’t fully convinced myself. I may well be measuring this book with standards that shouldn’t be applied to this specific title. It’s the question I struggle with so often: is it me, or is it the book?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Steven, I concede to your reservations about plot. I actually think there is a narrative arc throughout, that of Batty and Jeffrey, but Birdsall, rigorously staying with Lydia’s middle-grade viewpoint, presents it almost in passing, secondary to Lydia’s attention. (Lydia, our eyes and ears, is the last to realize their possible future, just seven pages from the end.) Even so, there aren’t many chapters in this book where this plot isn’t advanced (I started to list them, but it made this too long), and as an adult reader with prior knowledge, I actually thought Birdsall was a little too obvious about it. I do think Birdsall practices this form of “plot happening on the periphery of the middle grade protagonist’s awareness” in all of the other books, but in those other books the plot eventually erupts at the climax. Not so in this one, unless Batty trying on the wedding veil counts as the quietest climax ever (and that’s why Birdsall doesn’t show the actual wedding). So I don’t think it’s you. On the other hand, this doesn’t much hurt its Newbery worthiness in my eyes. I still think “development of plot” is masterful albeit idiosyncratic.

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    Steven, I am curious. Without being told otherwise, would you think Wesley did or didn’t appear in a previous book? I couldn’t tell from your description.

    I do think your general point is important. As hinted by Kate B above, there are fans of books 1-3 (and Skye in particular) who seem quite dismayed by this book. The main protagonist of PENDERWICKS AT LAST is not the same as in the previous books, in fact did not appear at all in the first three books. Maybe that’s not all that different from other books we could play the sequel game with this year: LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME, SUNNY, and REBOUND for example all feature different protagonists from their predecessors. I would contrast this with books like WILD ROBOT ESCAPES and AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE in which the protagonist is the same as in the prior books. Even though all are “sequels” I think this affects how we evaluate them.

    • steven engelfried says:

      I think I would have assumed Wesley was not in a previous book, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if the earlier story of Batty and Wesley had been part of another Penderwicks book. And looking at pages 7-8, where he’s introduced, it’s clear that Birdsall does everything she needs to do to introduce and develop the character through Lydia’s point of view and experiences. It does feel like the introduction of a new character:

      “Wesley was an art student Batty had met her first week at college, and had often brought home with her for visits. Lydia liked him more than any of Batty’s boyfriends from high school. Indeed, he was among her top four or five picks of all of her sisters’ boyfriends put together.” (7)

      We also learn about his personality from Lydia’s point of view: “air of quiet mystery”; “he wasn’t one for being watched”; “he preferred making real things, with his hands.” And also some of Batty’s feelings: “I’m not leaving school for a boy, even if he is Wesley.” Birdsall is just masterful at fully developing characters through dialogue and Lydia’s viewpoint. We don’t even meet Wesley for another 185 pages, but when he does appear we understand exactly why his actions and choices are meaningful.

      Interesting examples for the “sequel game.” It seems to me that LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME and REBOUND both require less back-filling to the earlier books than PENDERWICKS. And WILD ROBOT ESCAPES more. Each author chooses how to handle it for returning readers and new readers. I think they all managed it well (though I’m not sure the ending REBOUND works for both).

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Nina Lindsay used to frown on considering “timelessness” in Newbery deliberations. But since we have different hosts, I might as well toss this out there and see what people think. Criteria 2 states “Each book is to be considered as a contribution to literature.” I think THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST, because of its lived-in characters, assured writing, anchor position as the culmination of a Rowling-esque series plot arc, and resulting rabid devotion of its fans has probably earned “canon” status as much as A Year Down Yonder, Dicey’s Song, and arguably even The Grey or High King. Again, Nina frowned on thinking along these lines, but people do look at winners past, and though Newbery winners come and go every year, how many are really enduring classics? That’s where I think “contribution to literature” might come in, and I think PENDERWICKS is one of the few books this year where I am confident about that. I don’t think anyone, if they saw it on the list years from now, would question, what were they thinking?

    • I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments on this book! While I don’t mind the timelessness argument much (though it is too easy to conflate later books with earlier books, I think, instead of considering them alone) – I did a double take when I read the list of fantastic titles you mention. Those books are all high points of their respective series and At Last, to me, really isn’t. It’s well paced and almost reminiscent of Enright-esque lazy summers, but it also reads as seeped in its own nostalgia – it’s a comfortable conclusion instead of a rousing one. (I’m also considering it in context, and not on its own, but the timelessness concept can hurt this book, too, I think. This isn’t the timeless title – the heavy lifting was done by the previous book.)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Hi Beth,
      Yes the previous book was the most emotional in the series. I wanted it to win the Newbery, but as Steven suggests, its not winning shouldn’t hurt the case for this book.

      I once suggested (when comparing Ghost to Booked) that being “conventional” could actually help a book’s Newbery chances. Things become convention because they can be relied on to get a hoped-for result. Take JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE, which seems to have strong support this year. For all his gifts, Curtis has often been idiosyncratic in his past plots, actually quite similar to Birdsall’s previous Penderwicks books–mostly episodic and fun except for a sudden emotional upset. JOURNEY OF LITTLE CHARLIE feels a bit different than some of Curtis’ older books, because fairly early on it settles into a more conventionally plotted journey-with-a-purpose, and I think people could respond more favorably to that, though it is arguably less “individually distinct.” In THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST, Birdsall went the other way by staying episodic but removing the emotional upset that appears in previous books. Does that make the book less effective? That seems to be the consensus, but I don’t know that I agree.

      Despite the series’ lightheartedness, all of the “original” Penderwicks are living with tragedy: the death of Elizabeth. When Iantha and Ben appear on the scene in book 2, they do so under the cloud of their own tragedy, the death of Iantha’s husband. Like Batty, Ben has never known one of his parents. Even Jeffrey, honorary Penderwick, was fatherless for 12 years until the events of book 3. What Rachael Stein called “the central tragedy at the heart of the family” erupts in book 4, which leaves unanswered where Skye’s arc will end up. Because we were not privy to the intervening 9 years, to learn that, in Lydia’s memories, “Skye was usually smiling” (222) and to see that Skye “flung herself first at Batty, for a long, joyous embrace” (227) was enormously moving to me, albeit in a different way than its predecessor.

      THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST is a sort of return-to-Eden book. There is finally a Penderwick, Lydia, who has always known the love of 2 parents, the unresentful love of all her siblings, and who thus can “like everybody,” even Mrs. Tifton. But being untouched by grief, Lydia is also never quite sure what’s going on. Her sisters seems as goddesses to her (262) and Lydia is a bit on the outside. When Aunt Claire shares photographs of Elizabeth, Lydia “thought it should be said,” “if your mother were here, she couldn’t be proud of me though. . . Since I wouldn’t be here” (264). So it is important that, in this book, like her sisters 15 years before, Lydia finds friendship (and perhaps more) at Arundel. Unlike her sisters, the friendship is not borne of sadnesses, and the final chapter is not a new beginning but Another Beginning.

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