Buffalo News Book Club for July: ‘The Penderwicks’ by Jeanne Birdsall - The Buffalo News

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Buffalo News Book Club for July: ‘The Penderwicks’ by Jeanne Birdsall

You’ll find a 4-year-old wearing colorful butterfly wings, just because she wants to.

And Latin being spoken, for both edification and fun.

You’ll learn what one bookish 10-year-old wants to be when she grows up.

And, by the end, what the relationship between sisters is really like – at least where one Massachusetts family is concerned.

In “The Penderwicks,” by Jeanne Birdsall, four young sisters go on a summer vacation to a New England cottage with their father, a widower.

The novel is about what happens during that trip – for Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty Penderwick, and their beloved dog Hound.

The book is the July selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.

You couldn’t pick a better book to read at the height of summer here in Western New York.

The subtitle of the book hints at its seasonal appeal: “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.”

And this book offers something for readers of every age.

Adults will see in its pages glimpses of books they loved as children.

And younger readers? They are about to meet a writer who takes them very seriously.

“The idea of writing down to children is very bizarre,” Birdsall told The News, by phone from her home in Northampton, Mass.

Birdsall said that, at bottom, her books aim to serve as ways of connecting with others. “To me, books are always conversations between the author and the reader,” she said.


Birdsall said that she loves books by writers like E. Nesbit and Edward Eager.

So, in her own works, she said she has tried to tell stories that will captivate readers in the same way she remembers being fascinated by reading as a child.

“The Penderwicks,” which won the National Book Award, is the first book in a series that currently numbers three volumes – with more to come. The series will eventually include five titles, Birdsall said. The fourth book is due out next March.

With “The Penderwicks,” Birdsall said, one of the tales she had in mind was Louisa May Alcott’s classic story of sisterhood.

“I thought, I will begin with the idea of ‘Little Women,’ ” said Birdsall, 63, in a conversation with The News.

In “The Penderwicks,” there are four sisters, ranging in age from 4 to 12.

Batty is the little one. Rosalind is the oldest, and nearer to her age are Skye, the second eldest, and Jane.

At the start of the story, the family is in motion – headed toward a few weeks at a summer retreat in the Berkshires.

“They’re in their car with Mr. Penderwick and Hound,” we read, as the book begins. “The family is on the way to Arundel and, unfortunately, they’re lost.”

Eventually they find their cottage, a small house in the country near a fancy estate called Arundel, occupied by a woman who seems very intimidating, and her son, Jeffrey.

In Jeffrey Tifton, the Penderwicks find a friend – and a companion for a series of adventures. (“He’s a stand-in for Laurie in ‘Little Women,’” Birdsall said.)

They climb trees, shoot arrows, scavenge for old clothes and other treasures in Arundel’s attic, and feed treats to pet bunnies named Yaz and Carla. They wander into a pasture that might just be occupied by a fearsome, and very large, farm animal.

And, at the same time, the children try to figure out what exactly is going on with Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother, and her unlikable gentleman friend named Dexter Dupree. (Names are terrific in this one, as you already can see.)

The answer might involve a military academy that Jeffrey dreads attending.

Along the way, one of the Penderwick girls nurtures her dream of being a writer. Another finds herself thinking a lot about a teenage boy who works around the estate.

In crafting this “summer tale,” Birdsall said she wanted to take the central idea of a family of four tightly-knit sisters – and change it, into a new dynamic.

For instance, Alcott had made Jo the “strongest character” in her novel, Birdsall said.

“I wanted to split that up,” she said.

That’s why one of the Penderwick sisters has a temperament that seems similar to Jo March – while another one has the yearning to be a writer.


In “The Penderwicks,” you’ll find lots of creative, lighthearted play with words and language – both ancient and modern.

That applies to dialogue, which is quick and funny.

Take this bit, when some of the girls are practicing shooting arrows with Jeffrey:

“‘That’s the third time you’ve missed the whole target. Are you blind?’ said Skye.

‘Take off your hat, Jane,’ said Jeffrey.

Jane was wearing a yellow rain hat, because Skye and Jeffrey were wearing their camouflage hats, and she didn’t want to be the only one without a hat.”

The sisters also have code words for things like their meetings, which are called MOPS and MOOPS – or, “Meeting Of Penderwick Sisters,” as distinct, the book explains, from a “Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters.”

There is also family shorthand known as “OAP,” which means the “Oldest Available Penderwick” must do something or be somewhere.

Then there is the Latin.

Mr. Penderwick – who, Birdsall said, “is based a lot on my husband” – loves the ancient language, and often speaks in Latin to his daughters.

Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty don’t yet speak or read the language, but they are learning about it just by living with a dad who is a fan.

Birdsall said she studied Latin in school, and was impressed by it then – especially when she read “The Aeneid.”

“I studied it in high school for four years,” she said.

Writing about the Penderwick family allowed her to immerse herself again in the language – to acquire lots of books of Latin grammar and vocabulary, “and go through them and have fun with it.”

“You can make your characters be interested in the things you are interested in,” she said.

“Rosalind ends up studying Latin, too,” she added.

Playing with words and foreign languages is a source of delight, Birdsall said.

“Having, understanding these roots, it’s just – for me, knowing bits and pieces of all these languages is like having all these different flowers in my garden,” she said.


The other Penderwick books available, now, are “The Penderwicks on Gardam Street” and “The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.”

The next to be published will be “The Penderwicks in Spring,” Birdsall said.

“It actually skips time,” she said. “It’s about 5½ years after the end of the third book.”

“Batty turns 11 in there,” she said.

Of the series as a whole, Birdsall said that she has long had an idea of where the books would take her by the final pages of the last volume.

“I’ve had it planned from the very beginning,” she said. “There’s really an over-arching story I’m telling.”

“The only way I could tell it was by having some of them grow up.”

Birdsall said that she is in the early stages of working on the fifth Penderwick book.

Big changes will be in store, by the culmination of the five-book series.

“By the end of the series,” she said, “somebody will get married.”

Birdsall said that when the Penderwick series wraps up, she plans to continue writing other titles for children.

She said she feels very lucky to have had the four Penderwick sisters as a part of her life – not just for one story, but five.

“This has given me a way to relive my childhood, for 20 years,” Birdsall said.

“I’m pretty much the luckiest person in the world.”

“It’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful.”

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

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