The Charm of the Penderwicks (Janie and Betsy discuss)

penderwicks gardam_Fotor_CollagePeriodically, Janie and Betsy discuss great middle grades literature, trying to figure out what makes it so great. Today, the charming Penderwicks clan are held up to the microscope.

[Betsy] Hey Janie! The fourth Penderwicks book is out this month, and I think it might be my favorite of the series. I know I’m not the only one who’s been anxiously awaiting its debut. What do you think it is about this series that draws readers in?

[Janie] Well, what struck reviewers about it first was, as I mentioned in my review , the unmistakable sense of throwback.  Even though set in the present day, the attitudes and dialogue and very look of the novel harked back to an earlier day–perhaps even a day that most reviewers could remember.  All four novels have that feel about them–though I admit I haven’t read the fourth one. 

Besides the nostalgia element, the stories are very unthreatening.  Reassuring, even–nobody dies, nobody gets seriously hurt, the villains are really just insensitive or thoughtless, and the plots resolve happily.  It almost sounds boring when we talk about it that way, but the storytelling style is gently humorous and the characters are endearing; we keep turning pages because we care about them.

[Betsy] Yes! These stories could have happened during our own childhoods, but Birdsall adds in subtle elements for contemporary readers. For instance, the dad and mom both work in the fourth volume, and they appear to have a very egalitarian relationship: they share the cooking and cleaning chores. Birdsall includes details that seem very ordinary to our 21st century ears, but would have been jarring more than 20 years ago: the family makes quesadillas, and there are references to a desert war in the fourth one.

One thing that struck me afresh as I reread the books was an interesting contrast between the different family units. Essentially, by the fourth volume, the Penderwicks are a truly blended family: there are children from both parents’ previous marriages and a new child that is the product of their new union. And yet, the stereotypical blended family issues are markedly absent. In Jeffrey’s family, however, his mother and father have never reconciled over their bitter and painful divorce. His stepfather is one of the “villains” in the stories as well. In addition, the entire family gets involved in Rosalind’s latest romance; it is clear that the choice of a spouse (or even boyfriend) affects the entire family! Do you think Birdsall is offering up a commentary here on how hard divorce is on a family unit versus the death of a spouse (as the Penderwick spouses previously suffered)? Not to minimize the tragedy of losing a parent or spouse to death, but perhaps those families do not suffer the bitterness and relational turmoil that often accompanies divorce.

[Janie] Interesting point!  I hadn’t thought about that.  I’ve heard about studies related to that subject—in most cases, children can handle the death of a parent, traumatic as it is, better than the divorce of both parents.  Jeffrey essentially adopts the Penderwicks as his own family because they warmly accept him.  He reminds me of Laurie in Little Women—another beloved story featuring four sisters and a functionally single parent! (The March girls’ father is serving as an army surgeon, so their mother is head of the house while he’s away.)  Laurie is an orphan who lives with his wealthy grandfather, and though he has all the material comforts he could want, he’s desperately lonely.  He forms a close friendship with Jo March just as Jeffrey bonds with Skye Penderwick.  The importance of family is a clear theme in Birdsall’s work—if you don’t have one, do all you can to find one!

Something we should point out, though, is that these books are what I would call relentlessly secular.  There’s no mention of church, or God, or references to scripture, like you often find even in secular novels.  This could be simply because they are set in modern-day New England (as is the author!) which is, I believe, the most unchurched region in the US today.   There’s nothing anti-religious either; it’s just that religion plays no part in the characters’ worldview.  What positive themes do you see that a Christian can embrace and build on?

[Betsy] I noticed that, too, Janie—perhaps the secular side sticks out to me precisely because there are so many themes we can embrace and build upon from within a Christian worldview. In this latest volume, I noticed that Sunday morning was much like a Saturday morning for the family. It jarred me a touch, not because those who don’t go to church can’t have a loving family or enjoy a sweet time together, but because there is so much in the Penderwicks that resonates with a Christian worldview: kindness to one another, balancing confession and admonishment with love, cherishing the family, opening up hearts and homes to the unloved and forsaken (Jeffrey!). Perhaps the very generic-ness of the Penderwicks in terms of religion (or lack thereof) has helped their broad appeal to the masses. But I can’t help wondering what the church would seem like to the masses if we, as a church, were to treat our church family with the same respect, kindness, and fierce loyalty as the Penderwicks treat their own; what a statement we would make!

[Janie] That’s a great point to close our little discussion. The good news is, the church has ample motivation in the love of the Father, ample inspiration in the fellowship of Christ, and ample power though the Holy Spirit to reach out to members of our own church family as well as those outside.  Our God is “a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows; he sets the lonely in families . . .” (Ps. 68:6).  Novels like The Penderwicks remind us what that looks like and what a blessing it is.  I just read a review of Cinderella that made me think of The Penderwicks; the writer praises the movie as a “gallant anachronism” that unashamedly (and without battle scenes, sex, or blood!) embraces the straightforward virtues of kindness and courage.  But he was disappointed that no reference was made to God or the church throughout, when even the Disney cartoon feature included a wedding scene in a chapel.  But even if the author doesn’t specifically give glory to God, God is still glorified, because it’s only through his goodness that we can be good—or even love good.

That’s why we love The Penderwicks!

Check out our reviews of the four volumes to date:

book cover images from amazon

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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  1. Hayley on March 23, 2015 at 6:58 am

    Great discussion; I love the Penderwicks and can’t wait to read the latest book!

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