When I was a kid, I used to be a regular at the public library. More than a regular, really. I’d go a couple of times a week and take out twenty or twenty-five books at a time, bring them home in a paper grocery sack, and read them all before the next time I went. Often, I read the same books over and over again. I was in college before I really discovered the pleasure of reading new things; my childhood and adolescence were about the pleasures of re-reading, knowing every character and scene and turn of phrase in a beloved book.
One of the authors I read over and over was Elizabeth Enright. Her books about the Melendy family (Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver) were simultaneously familiar and strange: they were a regular family of regular kids, who bickered and read and put on plays and did chores and sang around the house and liked each other most of the time and had favorite books and ran races with each other. No magic in this book; no pirates, no orphans being rescued by Indian gentlemen. But the books take place in the 1930s and 1940s, and so they were strange, too. You got things to eat out of the icebox. A notebook cost a dime. Food was rationed. Kids could buy war bonds, or at least stamps. The combination of the familiar and the strange was enchanting, at least to me, and I still love these books today.
The reason I go into all this detail (besides hoping I can convince you to read these books, starting with The Saturdays) is that it provides the best comparison I can think of for Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street. Four sisters, of different ages and temperaments and abilities (Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty — and don’t forget Hound, who, though not a sister, is definitely a member of the family), who bicker and play sports and read and go to school and have their own ordinary family adventures: thus far familiar. No mother, and a father who is forced by a posthumous letter to start dating? Thus far strange… The books are hugely enjoyable, as the author seems to understand kids of all ages, and there’s a sense of humor (without losing the seriousness with which children take their problems) throughout. The writing is charming, and it doesn’t need magic to be engaging. It’s set in the modern day, but I think it’s not going to age quickly, the way some books do.
I enjoyed the first one a bit more than the sequel. The first was so well-rounded and gave us such a great sense of the sisters’ relationship with one another and of their individual characteristics. The second one, while still funny, well-written, and solidly enjoyable, bore some of the marks of a hurry, particularly the ending – the book industry is a cruel mistress – and there was one incident that still doesn’t make much sense to me in the context of the book. Still, there were many great things about it. One that stands out is that the father in the book speaks Latin (he’s a botanist), and Birdsall uses this to subtly point out the Latin origins of some of J.K. Rowling’s words and spells from her Harry Potter series. When Mr. Penderwick comes home from his first blind date, he moans, “Cruciatus!” His oldest daughter looks it up, and finds out it means torture. I enjoyed this enormously, and I know kids who have read both series will feel very smart as a result. I loved these, especially the first, and I look forward to more. As much as I love kids’ books that are full of magic, I love ordinary kids doing ordinary things just as much, and this is a wonderful entry in that genre.