Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Penderwicks in Spring

The Penderwicks in Spring
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the course of four books, Batty Penderwick has grown up a lot, from being the baby of four motherless sisters, running around wearing fairy wings and needing to be kept out of trouble by elder sisters Rosalind, Skye, and Jane, to being a fifth-grader and the oldest of the three "Younger Penderwick Siblings," including second-grader Ben and toddler-princess Lydia. Batty owes her shot at being an older sister to their father's marriage to Ben's widowed mom Iantha. But to her birth-mother, whom she never knew, she owes many things: her real first name (Elizabeth), her love of music (though Batty has more talent at it), and a surprise heartache that sneaks up on her the night she overhears Skye explaining why she has always blamed Batty for their mother's death.

Still grieving for a beloved dog who passed away six months ago, Batty suddenly loses the inner sprite that has lately awakened inside her, threatening to burst into song. Now, suddenly, the beautiful singing voice she has been secretly cultivating as a surprise for her family on her upcoming eleventh birthday, becomes a pitiful croak. All the joy goes out of her reunions with Nick, the athletic war hero from across the street, and Jeffery, her musical mentor who happens to be hopelessly in love with Skye. She even loses interest in her fledgling dog-walking business, featuring a morbidly fat dachshund and a shar-pei who is terrified of trash cans.

Watching the life go out of her, as this sweet girl sinks into depression, is one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed in the pages of children's fiction. And for once - well, no, "for once" isn't the right phrase; I should say "more than ever" - the Penderwick siblings' tradition of swearing each other to secrecy creates an impenetrable bubble of mystery around Batty's problem, preventing the people who love her from being able to get through to her. As one sibling in particular feels weighed down by too many secrets, the possibility of true tragedy becomes an agonizing alternative to this series' accustomed blend of mild family drama, touching relationships, and good-natured humor.

Amazingly, given what I have just said, the book retains enough entertaining charm to propel the reader along, with a couple of young-adult romances, an annoying house guest, some small-fry tomfoolery, some comical misunderstandings, and the wit and warmth of a family that owes much of its skill at engaging repartee to a dad who is literally the absent-minded professor. In fact, the blending of these contrasting moods with Batty's central crisis is one of the things that makes the latter so moving. Hats off to an author with both the courage and the skill to explore this challenging territory. Whether the ending represents a pat solution may be up for debate, but I think it leaves open the possibility that things will never be quite right between Skye and Batty after this. Will there be an after this, though? That's what I'd like to know.

This is the fourth book of the Penderwicks series, starting with the National Book Award winner The Penderwicks and continuing with The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Their Massachusetts-based author is also an art photographer and has written a few children's picture-books.

No comments: