This isn’t going to be so much a book review as it is some miscellaneous thoughts (no spoilers!) that I had while I was reading The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall, the third and latest installment in the Penderwicks series, of which Ms. Birdsall has promised to write five books.
Although my reviews of the first two books (here and here) indicate that my feelings for the books are a little more enthusiastic than they are, I do like them. However, reading this third volume made me think about series books. What do we expect from them? Do we somehow expect them to be less well-written because they are series titles, even when the original author is still doing the writing? When I think about series I love that have stood the test of time, it occurs to me that yes, some books are better than others, but this doesn’t detract from the appeal of the series as a whole. I remember reading other series, though, that haven’t retained their popularity, and I wonder why. I remember reading the Amy and Laura series by Marilyn Sachs when I was young, and while apparently they have been reissued, I don’t hear them mentioned anymore. I don’t remember much about the series, really, but a quick perusal of the summary at Amazon informs me that they are set during the 1940s. Does it take a while for something old to seem new again? Do books regain their appeal after they cross over the mark where the setting and time period merely seem dated to the point at which adults and children alike consider reading them akin to a warm-and-fuzzy history lesson?
Following this same line of thought, another thing I wondered about while reading Point Mouette is this: Will these books seem dated because of the Penderwick girls’ mentioning certain books that they love? I mean, once Ivy + Bean is no longer well-known (bear in mind I haven’t read Ivy + Bean, so I can’t say anything about the popular appeal of the series), will the Penderwick girls’ adoration for Ivy + Bean make The Penderwicks, which some think are destined to become classics, seem dated? It seems to me that if one hopes her novel will be read some twenty-five years after it is published, one should avoid references that would make readers scratch their heads and question the reference. Then again, I can think of other books that have maintained their popular appeal and still have these rather arcane references. If the books are “intellectual” enough, of course, they are riddled with footnotes to clarify all the cultural, literary, and historical references. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often in children’s literature.
It’s a catch-22 really, isn’t it? One of the things I actually love about reading older works, even to my young children, is the sense of time and place they give us. And yet here I am
complaining wondering if such references are a good idea if the author wants to leave a lasting mark. Here’s another thought: when reading a book, say Half-Magic, for example, that refers often to another book (the E. Nesbit books, in this case), I am actually more motivated to pick up the other book, although both book and author are certainly not new. Maybe that’s the intended effect–a sort of love note/recommendation to another author or work that the author loves?
Okay, I’m getting off that round-about of thinking and just make a few more observations about The Penderwicks at Point Mouette: first, I wasn’t crazy about the “romantic” element in the story, but that’s mainly because I have a hard time figuring out how not to be reactionary about it. Thinking back to my own childhood (which I realize is not the best lens through which to view others’ experiences, but it’s the only one I have!), I distinctly remember having a very big but thankfully unrequited crush on one of my fellow sixth graders. The “romance” in Point Mouette is treated in such a way that the girl’s very idealistic but realistically drawn feelings are exposed and the “romance” ends in a way that is very likely to happen in real life. I don’t like it, really, but I don’t like to promote the boyfriend/girlfriend relationship among children. However, I also realize from my own experience that there’s just no stopping the developmental train–my own crush certainly didn’t develop as a result of peer pressure; I never even told anyone!
I spent a lot of my time while reading this book having the above conversation with myself, but then I got to the end. Oh, the ending! The last few pages are positively beautiful and completely redeemed the book for me and quietened all of the questions and criticism I had about series fiction and gradeschool romance. If you want to read a positively heartwarming portrayal of family life, read The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.
I have to mention one more thing about The Penderwicks books: I think that the bookcovers are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Bookcovers aren’t something that I usually think or write much about, but I think David Frankland, the artist who created these covers, perfectly captures the spirit in his simple design.
The colors, the silhouettes, the toile-like look and feel–I love it. (Go here to see and read about how the bookcovers differ on the foreign editions. Very interesting!)
Well, you’re not likely to see this review in a magazine anywhere, that’s for sure. If you’ve read all of my convoluted thoughts and have any ideas about series fiction or romance in middle grade stories, talk to me in the comments. I’d love to chat about it! (Knopf, 2011)