Review of “The Penderwicks”


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, published in 2005, rapidly established itself as a modern children’s classics, garnering awards, rave reviews, and immediate bestseller status. Though published so recently, its plot and style is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright or E. Nesbit’s books. The focus on simple outdoor fun, lack of electronics, and four creative, intelligent sisters seem to belong to a different era than the twenty-first century. However, there are a few elements in the book which do give away its more modern origin, and these happen to be the same elements which the Catholic parent will want to know about before offering the book to their children.

PROBLEMATIC ELEMENTS

The most concerning component of the story is the message about lying. The two middle sisters agree to lie to their father and older sister about nearly letting the littlest Penderwick get gored by a bull. They repeatedly lie about this episode, maintaining that their little sister was caught in a rose bush. I was really hoping that eventually the plot would show the girls learning some sort of lesson about lying, but alas, no. The message about lying here is certainly that one can lie with impunity and no guilty conscience.

Another detail I disliked was a subplot about Rosalind, the oldest Penderwick at 12, having a huge crush on Cagney, the 19 year old gardener. I found this both ridiculous and inappropriate, but fortunately the author did intend a positive message here, as Rosalind discovers she is being foolish: “I’m an idiot, [Rosalind] thought. I’m only twelve years old -well, twelve and a half,- and Cagney’s much too grown-up to be my boyfriend.”

This leads into another negative aspect of the book: the name-calling. Skye, the 11 year old, has a hot temper and is the worst culprit, saying things like: “Darn that Dexter. Double darn that lousy rotten no-good creep.” She also calls her littlest sister a stupid idiot and midget. However, there is character development about her learning she needs self control: “She sat up and swung her arms around wildly. This controlling her temper wasn’t going to be easy.” The 10 year old, Jane, calls names such as “fish head” and “silly git” playfully while practicing soccer. This is portrayed as meant merely in fun.

The final element parents might want to know about is a vampire reference which I found quite needless and out of sync with the feel of the rest of the book. At one point the four year old, Batty, is described as “playing vampires with Hound.” She “leap[s] over Hound’s water bowl, shrieking, ‘Blood, blood!'”

POSITIVE MESSAGES

On the positive side of the scale, by and large the book contains positive messages about being courageous, pursuing your dreams, loyalty to family and friends, kindness, and forgiveness. The four sisters each have a unique, strong personality to which tween girls will easily relate. Rosalind is kind and responsible. Skye is independent, hot tempered, and smart. Jane is a creative, aspiring writer. Batty is a dreamy animal lover.

I appreciated all the positive interactions between Mr. Penderwick, a widower, and his four daughters. Although a tad absent minded, Mr. Penderwick is a refreshingly loving, affirming father figure who is always willing to listen. He also notices and empathizes whenever a daughter is upset and encourages each daughter to develop her particular talents.

Mr. Penderwick is a foil to the neighbor boy Jeffrey’s overbearing mother who tries to force him into military school when he really wishes to be a musician. I thought this part of the plot was handled exceptionally well. The Penderwicks encourage Jeffrey to be honest with his mother, and have the courage to tell her that he wants to attend a Music Conservatory instead. Jeffrey and his mother are able to come to a compromise thanks to the Penderwicks’ advice.

TAKEAWAY

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would probably allow my tweens to read it, then discuss the problematic elements.  If your children are well versed in children’s classics like Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, and Narnia, they will particularly enjoy the literary references Birdsall sprinkles throughout the pages of her books. If they haven’t yet read these classics, maybe The Penderwicks will inspire them to try them!

7 thoughts on “Review of “The Penderwicks”

  1. Anonymous

    Pardon me, but I have to ask, have you actually read this book? This book is about wholesome family relationships, and 4 average,kind-hearted, family oriented girls, living their everyday lives in Massachusetts. Each of these characters has many relatable qualities and flaws: Rosalind is sweet but the responsibility of a motherless family sometimes weighs heavily on her; Jane is very smart and has a vocabulary beyond her years, but can also be an annoying day dreamer; Skye is a brilliant mathematician who has quite a temper, but is fiercely loyal and independent; and sweet Batty has no flaw other than her never-failing love to Hound. I sincerely apologize, but I must disagree with this review. Perhaps there are flaws in the Penderwick series, but I do believe that these books promote many things good, true, and beautiful. I am certain that there are many things we can learn from this faithful band of sisters.

    1. Pardon me, but have you actually read this review? I think we actually agree on the end conclusion: that this book is worth reading and has some good lessons. If you read the entire review you will see that the last two sections are about positive messages.
      I do warn parents about certain problematic messages; many Catholic parents including myself may dislike making light of lying and name-calling, which are indeed aspects of this book if you read it analytically.

  2. Kathleen

    Pardon me seems to be a theme here, so I will start with… Pardon me, but I believe making light of lying and name calling may be a bit drastic. I do agree that using unedifying words is wrong but have you never made that simple mistake yourself? Midget is just another term for small person, of course calling a person with the dwarfism a midget would be hurtful. But they are family. And fish head comes straight from Jane’s vivid imagination. Please correct me if I am incorrect but do you not agree?

    1. I disagree. First, please understand that name calling is not acceptable for me, and for many other Catholic parents.
      More importantly, lying in a children’s book with no negative consequences or resolution is not a positive theme. For contrast, read E. Nesbit, Arthur Ransome, or Hilda Van Stockum and you will see a 100% wholesome children’s book. Again, I think we agree overall that this series is fine to read. But my aim is to point out all the potential problem spots in books, and you must understand that for many parents, such as me, children lying repeatedly to their parents is not a positive in a story.

  3. Kathleen

    I respect your point of view as a mother and as one too I strive to fill my children with wholesome content, may I ask, have you read the whole series? If so which is your favorite, which is the most problematic and which the most wholesome?
    Thank you,
    Kathleen

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