Meeting The Penderwicks and Thinking of Old Friends

penderwicksOn 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. uttley

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!)

Open Letters Monthly July 2014!


We did it again! And though I think this almost every month, this issue is a particularly good one. As has become traditional for our July issue, we all pitched in for a summer reading feature: this time we each recommend a book or two that’s hot hot hot! (My romance-reading friends will appreciate that one of my recommendations is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible: I’ve come a long way!) A significant highlight is editor John Cotter’s account of what it’s like to lose music — gradually, stutteringly, but inexorably — in which he manages the very difficult feat of writing poignantly about personal loss without becoming lachrymose or sentimental. My colleague Alice Brittan reviews Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen: how I love the graceful, meditative way she writes. Steve Danziger adds to his OLM credits with a look at the obsessive eccentrics who collect 78 rpms: Steve is another favorite contributor for me because he writes about subjects I don’t expect to be interested in but always draws me right in. Greg Waldmann takes on the Taliban; Justin Hickey continues his work on science fiction with Robogenesis; Steve Donoghue covers what sounds like a great book on jazz age New York; there are two new poems; and that’s not all!

My own main contribution is an essay on K. M. Peyton’s Pennington trilogy, a “YA” series that continues to be a favorite of mine. Inevitably, I found myself reflecting on the recent debate about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction, but rather than focusing on that argument in broad or abstract terms, I decided to write about Peyton’s books as I would any other. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding: either they stand up to that kind of critical attention or they don’t.