beyond the target audience: enjoying The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street as read-alouds

Noah and I are a big fan of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series. This is a little odd, since I strongly suspect that these novels’ typical reader is a middle-school-aged girl.

Why do I suspect these are “girls’ books”? Well, they feel very familiar to me from my own childhood of Anne Shirley, the March sisters, Laura and Mary Ingalls, and so on. Their main characters are four sisters. Their main action concerns family life, relationships, home. They’re primarily populated with nice, caring, good people. These are books of connectivity and family–of domestic adventure–rather than of danger, conflict, heroism, and villainy. They’re pretty standard “girls’ books.”

They are not, on the other hand, “girly” … the way the Rainbow Magic books are girly. Boys and girls, women and men all show up in the Penderwicks books. These characters’ behaviors and qualities (nurturing, athletic, aesthetically pleasing, emotional, aggressive, funny, intelligent, bookish, dramatic, and so on) aren’t assigned by gender: instead of walking gender stereotypes, the characters seem like actual people. The sisters do not live in an all-girl/all-pink-and-sparkly world. Instead, they have boy friends, a competent and caring father, male and female teachers, a regular old world of adults and children in their lives. While I imagine these books are published and marketed more toward girl readers, they don’t limit their own audience or interest–they don’t leave out boys (or men) or push them away.

I can pretty much guarantee that Birdsall did not spend her writing time imagining these books as read-alouds for 6-year-olds. And yet they work really well in this context. Because they are beautifully written and take pleasure in language, they’re fun to read aloud. They’re equally interesting to both Noah and me–we both watch for spare minutes to read! And they raise lots of worthwhile conversation topics without stressing either of us out (either by harping on violence and other scary stuff, or by throwing tons of sexism/racism/etc. our way).

Here are my quick reviews of the first two Penderwicks novels:

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy (2005)

My six-year-old and I really enjoyed The Penderwicks as a read-aloud bedtime story. He was constantly talking about the various characters and potential solutions to their problems as though they were our actual friends, which is always fun. Although obviously he’s not the book’s target audience (it’s for older kids and, I say with annoyance, probably received largely as a “girls’ book”), the book worked well for us because it’s generally optimistic about human beings, establishes real-feeling and nonviolent problems that are solvable within a child’s world, treats both girls and boys as interesting people and as friends, and is well-written. Plus it involves bunnies.

I do think it harps on a bit much about the deadness of the Penderwicks’ dead mother, in the grand tradition of dead parents in children’s literature (I know that’s a real experience, but parents and particularly mothers have a SHOCKING mortality rate in children’s fiction), and also about Rosalind’s little crush on Cagney. But I think the dead mother bit will actually be plot-relevant in the second installment of the series, which may make it feel less random as a recurring point of narrative.

Fun! Much-recommended.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008)

Although my six-year-old son and I are pretty far from the target audience of Birdsall’s Penderwicks books, we love them as read-alouds. (I admit to a little strategic skipping and condensing as I read: the dating stuff so strongly highlighted in this book is a little over his head but totally fine by me, but the prologue that takes us years into the past to make us sad about the girls’ dying mother is just not something he needs in his life at the moment. Also, the many little references to human sacrifice …)

The second installment in the series takes us to the Penderwicks’ neighborhood and lets us meet their Aunt Claire and their new neighbors, a gorgeous and kind (and conveniently widowed!) astrophysicist and her baby, who only says “duck.” It’s a funny and gentle story of layers of generally-well-meaning deceit, with quite a climax. It’s a book about girls that includes some romance but also shows them as definitely active and strong and interesting: there’s about as much soccer-playing and football drills as anything else. It’s the sort of book where we end up talking about the characters as though they were real people, acquaintances of ours.

And I just love Batty.

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