How can a book that is ultimately about an eleven year old’s belief that she is responsible for the death of those she has loved be so funny and charming? Such is the magic of The Penderwicks in Spring, the fourth in the truly classic and heartwarming Penderwicks series. We throw words like “modern classic” around a lot in children’s literature, but The Penderwicks are deserving of that classification. I used to comp these books to Little Women, but The Penderwicks has now evolved into the series that other books are comped to, though I have yet to find a truly worthy contender.
This book focuses on Batty, who is now eleven. She has recently discovered a hidden talent for singing and cannot wait to share it with her family on her birthday, which also happens to be when Rosalind returns from college and Jeffrey is visiting from Boston. Despite a large revolving cast, the characters are clear and the reader never feels overwhelmed. Birdsall’s gentle third person narration gives us wonderful insights into her characters, some which tug at the heartstrings and others that made me laugh out loud. Ben is evolving into a sweet, serious boy with a love of rocks and a dislike of Rosalind’s schmarmy boyfriend (“How could such a person as Oliver come from a state with so many great rocks? Would Ben have to rethink his devotion to Minnesota?”). Skye is as angry and complicated as ever, and we get a breathtaking look into the source of this pain, one that slays the reader and sends Batty into a devastating tailspin. It is hard to watch Batty suffer, and she weeps throughout a lot of this book, which meant I also wept. I finished the book a few hours ago and I still feel emotionally sensitive.
One of the aspects of Birdsall’s writing I find the most interesting is which moments she chooses to include in her family saga, and which happen off the page. One of the challenges of writing a series that takes place over seven years is that obviously you can’t include everything. But Birdsall tends to include quieter, everyday moments instead of big dramatic ones. We don’t see Rosalind go to college, for example, or experience the birth of Lydia. But we do spend time with Batty in the woods or Ben behind the bushes playing army. Perhaps most significantly in this novel, we don’t see the death of Hound but we do experience Batty’s profound and prolonged grief, which is perhaps the unexpected choice, but an extremely effective one.
There are few things in life I enjoy as much as a Penderwicks novel. I have written about them before here. I love the wild, warm chaos of the family, which now numbers up to eight with toddler Lydia, nine if you count Asimov the cat, which Batty certainly would. I love the descriptions of home and the traditions and details that make the Penderwicks as real to me as any living breathing person in my life. Take for example, how at age five (otherwise known as the age of reason) each Penderwick chooses their own special cake which is made for them lovingly by the rest of the family every year on their birthday. I love how emotionally resonant the books are, a literary equivalent of that tender person who wears her heart on her sleeve. So many books these days use snark, irony or flashy gimmicks to win over a presumedly jaded audience, but Birdsall proves that all you really need to engage a reader is emotional integrity.
Apparently there will be one more Penderwicks novel after this one. I would read about this family all the way to old age. The whole series thus far stands up to re-reading, for both kids and adults. While all of the novels are genuinely emotional, this one dips into the darkest territory so far, but it is a cleansing and satisfying experience. I am so happy to live in a world where there are Penderwicks books.
The Penderwicks in Spring will be available March 24, 2015 from Random House Canada.