The “family story” is a genre of novels for younger readers with a long history, going back at least to Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” A group of tightly-knit siblings, each with a distinct personality and interests, who have occasional squabbles but stick up for each other against the outside world, overcome difficulties, have personal triumphs, get in and out of trouble, sometimes have (by today’s standards) innocent romances and everyday adventures, and occasionally overcome family tragedies to reach a happy ending. The tops in that genre for me were The Melendy Family of author Elizabeth Enright, but there are other great ones, like the Bastables of E. Nesbit.
The genre began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when family story authors and publishers began trying to make them more contemporary and relevant. This usually meant focusing on families of low income, divorced parents, inner city settings, racial minority issues, drugs, sex and so on. One only has to look at the Newberry Award winners for excellence in children’s literature over the last 30 years to find many such books, and often they are quite well written, but I have to confess I don’t enjoy them as much as the family stories I grew up with, where kids still had some childhood innocence, grown-up problems were usually not encountered, and it was okay to be really good at things sometimes.
Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick novels are very much that sort of thing. Sure, they have some contemporary elements, like soccer leagues and cell phones, but in general they look back to a more innocent time. When I reviewed the first Penderwick book, I said I was definitely not the target audience for it. On further thought, maybe I sort of am. I have to say, the first one was more appealing to me than this second one, though, mainly because it combined the family story with a “summer adventure” plot, and included some appealing male characters. This second one is about the four Penderwick sisters at home with their single-parent father, and the focus is more on romance, both for their father, and somewhat for the oldest girl, Rosalind. There are plenty of other plots and adventures, and even a small mystery, and each of the sisters continues to be strongly individual and even good at some things, while of course not good at others. One plot element I liked involves two of the sisters exchanging homework assignments, a seemingly innocent deception with wide-ranging and dire consequences.
Okay, I’m still not the target audience for this book, but I did enjoy it, just not as much as the first one. But if you enjoy family stories, or if you have a young girl in your family who does, I suggest you give the Penderwick books a try. This kind of story deserves to be encouraged, in my opinion.
I only have one complaint, really. Couldn’t the publisher have sprung for a few different chapter heading illustrations, instead of running the silhouettes from the cover at the top of every chapter? A little variety there would have been welcome.