I just finished reading the third book in Jeanne Birdsall's delightful ongoing adventures of the Penderwick sisters. Batty, Jane, Skye, and Rosalind now range in age from five to thirteen, and while the sisters' widowed father is off on his honeymoon and Rosalind gets a vacation in New Jersey, the three younger sisters and their fatherless friend Jeffrey go to stay on the coast of Maine with their favorite aunt.
As the Oldest Available Penderwick, Skye, 12, almost buckles under the responsibility of keeping everyone in the family alive and whole. A series of disasters occurs, with one sprained ankle, one bloody nose, one bad case of writer's block, and one broken heart. And all of these small disasters are only the prelude to the summer's biggest event, a revelation that has the potential to be life-changing.
Although Skye's early panic seems overdone for my taste, as the speed of the action picks up, so does the conviction of the writing and the quality of the humor. Birdsall's humor always arises naturally (and seemingly effortlessly) from the characters' quirks and special qualities. Other children's writers who want to inject humor into their work could do a lot worse than study to Birdsall's technique. Such writers could also benefit from noticing the way she juggles four points of view and multiple sub-plots.
When Birdsall sought a publisher for her first Penderwick book (which went on to win the National Book Award), a number of editors turned it down for being old-fashioned. The Penderwick sisters don't spend their time instant messaging, and the institutional world of school with all its tropes of bullies and cliques never appears in these books. The Penderwicks' world is the world of free time and independence. The girls write books, toast marshmallows, view seals, sell golf balls and search for moose. They clean the house and try their hand at cooking. Somehow the four of them, despite occasional clashes, manage to stay devoted to one another without ever seeming saccharine. The sisters are not goody-goodies: they're lively and contentious and full of conflicted feelings and dramatic expression. I think any 8 to 12 year-old reader would enjoy getting to know them.