Middle grade fiction saved Jeanne Birdsall’s life. Here’s how Birdsall’s Penderwicks books helped save two of her fans.
The first time we listened to The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, we were fleeing Hurricane Irene. Traffic was backed up on the road out of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and I was running out of ways to entertain my five-year-old daughter. I had checked out the audiobook to reacquaint myself with the Penderwicks before reading the next book in the series for our statewide mock Newbery program, and I suspected the writing might be a bit advanced for Ella, but I thought I’d give it a shot. There was always the youngest Penderwick, four-year-old Batty, to keep her interested.
When we arrived at our friends’ house four hours later, Ella wanted to head directly to the guest room and finish listening to the book right then. Odd, I thought, but I went along with it. Two days later, on the drive home, she wanted to hear it again. And then again the next day. And the next. Soon she wanted to hear the other two Penderwick audiobooks. It wasn’t long before we were listening to all three volumes in rotation, everywhere we went, at all times of day and night. Our dial was permanently set on Radio Penderwick. Rosalind, Skye, Jane, Batty, and Hound were our non-corporeal companions as we ate silent dinners à deux.
For the first few weeks it was funny, but I thought it was a phase that would pass in its own time. After another month, it was definitely strange. Three months in, I thought I would go batty myself if I had to hear the saga of the Penderwicks one more time. Ella’s devotion to the books showed no sign of abating, though, and gradually my resistance wore away. After six months, I had to admit that I was as attached to them as she was.
If there had been another adult in the house at the time, the level of Penderwickitude might have been curbed, but there wasn’t. Ella’s father and I were in the middle of a divorce, and we were sharing custody of our child. During my custodial weeks, our little household consisted of only Ella, myself, and our fat orange cat. It made for a stark contrast to the boisterous Penderwick house, with its merrily squabbling sisters and scores of family friends. I think that rosy ideal of family togetherness is part of what attracted Ella and me to the books, but it’s not what kept us listening.
There is, after all, an aching absence at the center of the Penderwick family. The girls’ beloved mother died of cancer four years before the events of the first book. The spirit of the late Elizabeth Penderwick overlays everything in Jeanne Birdsall’s fictional world. It lends depth to the family’s joys and keeps them from ringing false to the reader. This is a family that loves fiercely — that clings tightly to one another because they know firsthand the impermanence of life and love.
When I speak to adults about the importance of reading aloud, I always tell them that children are capable of comprehending spoken language at a far higher level than they are able to read on their own. That is, of course, why we should keep reading to our children long after they learn to read for themselves. After our year with the Penderwicks, however, I’m convinced that there’s another piece to the puzzle. I think children’s capacity to understand the emotional content of fiction is much more sophisticated than we often give them credit for. I think the Penderwicks were giving my daughter the tools she needed to work through the sadness at the heart of her own family.
It would be nice if bibliotherapy were an exact science. Book plus reader equals recovery and psychological health. Has your child lost a grandparent? Read dePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs. Dead pet? Here’s Viorst and Blegvad’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. In reality, the process is much messier. It’s not that books don’t have the power to heal the human heart. Of course they do. Few of us would be in this business if we didn’t think so. The process is more like medieval alchemy than modern chemistry, though, and none of us has the philosopher’s stone.
My daughter and I don’t listen to our Penderwicks as often these days. Our little family has adjusted to its new shape, and we’ve moved on to other titles. Young Fredle, by Cynthia Voigt, is a current favorite. When Ella goes to sleep, though, she still likes to do so in the company of our favorite Massachusetts family, and now and then we still dine al Penderwick. Even if we outgrow the books completely one day, though, we owe a permanent debt of gratitude to Jeanne Birdsall. Her words are the refiner’s fire that helped turn our leaden hearts to gold.