The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall


As the subtitle “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy”1 suggests, this is a story about a summer vacation, and one that almost but not quite turns out very very wrong.

The Penderwick family’s usual summer plans—renting a cottage on Cape Cod for three weeks in August—fell through when the landlord sold the property at the last minute. Thankfully, Mr. Penderwick heard of another cottage in the Berkshires at the last minute through a friend of a friend and the six Penderwicks (four daughters and their widowed father and a lolloping Airedale called Hound) set out for Arundel. There are a few issues, such as the owner of the estate having forbidden dogs, and Mr. Penderwick’s inability to remember directions, but once they arrive, the summer gets off to a delightful start.

All they have to do is avoid Mrs. Tifton, the owner of the estate, and even more crucially, keep Hound out of her way. Guess what happens? Yep. Despite the snooty Mrs. Tifton’s best efforts, the girls and their dog invade the property in a particularly pervasive way, culminating with the inadvertent gatecrashing of the pinnacle of Mrs. Tifton’s summer, the annual garden party tour.

It’s hard to convey the charm of these books with a mere summary. They’re sweetly gentle books about loving families; there is some conflict and distress—parents who have set ideas about what their children ought to be and widowed fathers—but nothing truly evil or frightening. The oldest sister has her first crush. The youngest sister almost loses one of the titular rabbits. The Interesting Boy almost gets sent away to military academy when he’d much rather go to a boarding school in Boston next to a music school. But no one is ever really in danger. There’s no Incredible Climax to an Life-Changing Adventure. Each sister has her niche in the family, the responsible eldest, the budding author, the fleet soccer player and the butterfly. The father is an absent-minded botanist, who spouts Latin at his children. The dog…well, the dog is an Airedale.

Overall, I’d say that these are great for kids whose reading level has outstripped their maturity levels by three or four grade levels…or anyone who just likes gentle reads. If you liked this, try Elizabeth Enright’s books, both the Melendy quartet and books such as Gone-away Lake, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins, though those are all showing their age slightly. Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” series is another possibility, especially if you’re inclined to the theater arts. Another option might be Elizabeth Nesbit, and her ardent admirer, Edward Eager, both wrote books about families of siblings who played together much as the Penderwicks do, though those two authors do have a definite fantasy element; the kids therein all keep stumbling across magical items.

Is it entirely realistic? No. Reviewers on Goodreads dubious about the book who mentioned that several of the characters sound much older than they are. That said, I’ve thought that about a number of the YA books I’ve read recently.

1though I’d suggest that there are actually two interesting boys…

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