On the warm recommendation of two of my favorite readers, Sarah and Dorian, I read The Penderwicks this weekend. It’s charming! And, as the cover blurbs suggest, it’s a bit of a throwback, a children’s book of a gentler kind that seems (and is packaged, at least in the edition I read) to have come from an earlier time. This is not to say that it is simplistic: I would describe it as both sweet and sprightly, with just enough shadows (a dead mother, an evil step-father-to-be, a bit of tween angst, a ruined planter of jasmine) to keep it interesting. I enjoyed it — though I admit I did not love it, and can’t see myself rushing off to read the rest of the series. If I had a young reader to share them with, perhaps, but without taking any general stance on the whole adults-reading-kids’-books thing (I said my piece on that already, here), I’ll just say that for this adult reader, this one was a bit too thin and predictable to feel right for the reader I am now. (I’m bracing for your counter-arguments, you Penderwick lovers! Keep in mind I led with “it’s charming”!)
It got me thinking about the books I enjoyed when I was about the age The Penderwicks seems written for — the School Library Journal says Grades 4-6, but allowing for readers who are more precocious than they expect, let’s say ages 7 to 10-ish. Most of my favorites were historical fiction, one way or another: Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, for instance (which I’m thrilled to discover has been reissued in the New York Review Children’s Classics collection), or Barbara Willard’s The Lark and the Laurel and The Sprig of Broom. I still have my crumbling copies of these, along with Barbara Leonie Picard’s Ransom for a Knight. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books, of course (I still have my original box set), and the Anne books, and Little Women (in my mother’s illustrated edition) — but it was the ones about brave girls having adventures in long-ago times that appealed most to my imagination. Those books were the gateway drugs to the “adult” historical fiction I read avidly throughout my tween and teen years, especially Jean Plaidy’s many series (also, I see, now being elegantly reissued) — which in turn led me to, well, where I am today, though I thought at the time that I would end up a historian.
When you look back on your youthful reading, do you see signs in it of the person you grew up to be? Are there cherished childhood volumes on your shelves that have, like mine, survived moves and purges, and perhaps time in your own children’s custody? (Neither of my children ever caught the historical fiction ‘bug’: Maddie finally told me straight up to stop buying her books that I would like, which to be fair, is entirely the right advice. Plus Ransom for a Knight is pretty fragile, so it’s a good thing she never wanted to read it. Harumph!)