The Penderwicks in Spring—Jeanne Birdsall (2015)
I yelped with delight when I learned that the latest Penderwicks book was out.
The Penderwicks in Spring is the fourth book in a delightful middle reader series about the adventures of the Penderwick children and their friends and family. It’s a satisfying addition to the series, maybe the best since the first, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy (2005). You could read it on its own, but I wouldn’t. One of the many pleasures of these books is watching what happens to the children as they age. More than most children’s series, the Penderwicks books, which jump ahead a year or two between each volume, are about the passing of time. Which means they are also about change and death.
In the great tradition of children’s literature, the lives of the Penderwick children have been shaped by the death of a parent, in this case, their mother, who died of cancer just after the birth of the youngest Penderwick, Batty. Batty is four in the first book, and unlike her sisters Rosalind (12), Skye (11), and Jane (10), she has no memories of her mother. What she has instead is the warmth of her family, starting with the girls’ father, an absentminded professor of Botany who manages to be just this side of cliché. Each of the Penderwick sisters has a role/incipient métier: Rosalind, as eldest and by temperament (though who can sort these things out?), is the caretaker; Skye is sporty, a bit sarcastic and difficult; Jane is dreamy, a writer and observer. And Batty is delightful, especially in her fierce attachment to the beloved family dog, Hound.
By the time of the latest book, Batty is in fifth grade and her role expands to more than just comic relief. She’s at the center of The Penderwicks in Spring, and she’s about to learn, as the old song has it, that spring can really hang you up the most. Batty has become musical, devoted to the piano and abruptly, in the new book, discovering that she has a fine voice too, which she puts to good work on a whole bunch of the Tin Pan Alley songs that with impressive (and precocious) taste she adores.
The book begins with Batty determinedly stomping on a patch of lingering snow in the backyard of the Penderwicks’ Massachusetts home because, she explains, spring can’t begin until the snow’s all melted. But this spring will prove particularly hard. Rosalind is at college (with an obnoxious new boyfriend) and Skye and Jane are lost to their high school world of friends who trawl through the Penderwicks’ kitchen with impressive ferocity. More worrisomely, a beloved neighbour has been deployed to Iraq. And (spoiler alert) Hound has died. Birdsall describes Batty’s grief and misplaced feelings of guilt and responsibility that she didn’t do enough to save him utterly convincingly. (Fear not: the possibility of a new dog arises by the end of the book—the book is often dark, but it’s not a downer). Most piercingly of all, Batty overhears Skye saying something hateful about her and her relation to their mother, something that sends Batty into deep despair, a depression lifted only when Skye’s words are revealed as a terrible misunderstanding. Lessons are learned, but lightly, and the lessons are pretty sophisticated (paternalistic adult protection can really hurt children), so the book never feels preachy.
And like its companions in the series, The Penderwicks in Spring is funny: there’s an exchange student who Jane insists on talking to in French even though she doesn’t actually know it; the aforementioned obnoxious boyfriend who bores small boys with his knowledge of Buñel films; and Batty’s pistol of a baby sister, two-year-old Lydia, always ready with a zinger—sometimes even in Spanish, which she’s learned a few words of at her preschool, as in this exchange when Batty, seeking pocket money for singing lessons, asks her elderly neighbours whether they have any odd jobs for her. To Batty’s surprise, they eagerly ask her to walk their dog:
“I didn’t think you had a dog, Mrs. Ayvazian,” [Batty] said, hoping this was all a misunderstanding.
“Duchess, dear, say hello to Batty and Lydia.” Mrs. Ayvazian lowered her voice, as if the invisible dog could hear her. “She arrived only last week. My brother moved to Florida and thought she would be better of here with us. I think she misses him something awful.”
“Well, she should miss him. He spoiled her rotten.” Mr. Ayvazian didn’t lower his voice. Since there was still no dog in sight, Batty didn’t know whether this was a good or bad sign.
Could it be the Ayvazians were losing their minds? This happened sometimes to old people, Batty had heard, although usually it made them do things like misplace keys, not hallucinate dogs. She was trying to figure out a polite way of getting Lydia safely out of the house when she heard a grunt coming from behind a blue armchair.
Then, slowly, while Batty and Lydia stared in amazement, an oddly shaped brown animal—like an overstuffed hot dog with teeny legs—dragged itself out into the open.
“Gato,” said Lydia uncertainly.
That “uncertainly” is pitch perfect, like everything else about these books.
Batty soon trims the overweight dachshund Duchess down. Here and elsewhere in the book we see Batty take on new responsibilities—not least because she’s no longer the youngest Penderwick: she has a step-brother (Ben, seven) in addition to her little sister Lydia (in love with Ben, to his horror) from her father’s second marriage, cleverly orchestrated by the children in an earlier book. Batty will always be Batty, but she is also becoming Elizabeth—her given name, and, she concludes, a fine one for a singer.
Birdsall knew from the beginning she would write five books about the Penderwicks. I’m eager to read the last one, to see how everything turns out, but I’m already saddened by the thought that—like everything else we value—the series will come to an end.
The way I came to these books in the first place—at that time I didn’t yet have a child and even now she’s still too young for them—is a triumph of the virtues of independent bookselling, and since I try to value that world without being sentimental about it let me praise the good people at Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, NY. I was in town for a conference and spent a lovely afternoon browsing what was then at any rate an impressive store. The second book in the series must have just come out in hardback, and they had a whole display of the first one in paperback right by the cash. I picked up a copy and the clerk immediately said, solemnly, “You need to read that.” She was right. I’ve followed the series faithfully ever since, and I really hope that before too long my daughter will be as smitten with them as I am.