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Books in the Home: The Penderwicks on Hayward Street

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.
Rachael Stein
K Rachael Stein

K Rachael Stein is the digital resources analyst at Southern Maryland Regional Library. She blogs at abouttomock.blogspot.com.

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mary brigid barrett

I rarely find that bibliography is an exact science. When our daughter Emily was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of three and a half, confined to red wagon—we decided to use a red plastic wagon to move her around instead of a wheel chair—the book that she requested over and over again in the hospital and later as she reentered preschool with a profound limp, was Patricia McKissack’s Mirandy and Brother Wind. Pat’s story and Jerry Pinkney’s ebullient illustrations inspired and revitalized her. For a number of years, before founding the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, I volunteered every summer at the Hole in the Wall camp in CT. The kids there were in ongoing challenging circumstances dealing with various cancers and also cycle cell anemia. I worked with the kids informally, reading to them, helping them to write, drawing them. Photographs captured them as they were, but in drawing them I could capture their dreams and their hopes. Many kids without hair, wanted me to draw them with their hair, for example. I never met a child or teen who wanted to read a book about a character who had cancer. But they loved hearing me read The Great Gilly Hopkins---its sense of truth, and hope, resonated with them profoundly. And they also loved stories of warm, loving families, and books filled with humor. Every James Marshall book shared was an instant success. Kids in challenging circumstances need what we all need—books that in some way echo their own larger experience, but do not necessarily duplicate their own particular circumstances—truth at a slant, perhaps; as well as books that entertain, and books that inspire, sharing a sense of hope.

Posted : Jul 12, 2013 01:40


I loved reading your insights about how your daughter chose her own therapy, completely fascinating how if as parents we can equip our children with the love of reading they will allow it into their lives to meet their needs. As a young child constantly in hospital, our son surrounded himself with oceans and valleys of books, choosing in particular ones that gave him the most laughs to counteract the fears he experienced and ones that allowed him to express frustration and drama - enter 'Alexander and the Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day', every Mr Men book, Paddington (always getting in and out of scrapes) and the long winding journey of The Wizard of Oz that captivated him even at five. I think perhaps the idea of getting new body parts spoke to him. Even The Wiggles were elevated to therapeutic levels as the Big Red Car broke down and was fixed repeatedly. I love what you said about The Penderwicks giving your daughter the tools she may have needed to work through her own sadness. Spot on.

Posted : May 13, 2013 12:14


As you say, its true that books bring comfort to readers. Which book for which reader? Your analogy to medieval alchemy is exactly right. Thank you so much for this beautiful essay.

Posted : May 10, 2013 05:37

Monica Edinger

What a wonderful story about books as solace. I think you never quite know which is going to do the trick. I tend to be skittish about offering specific books as therapy as everyone processes tragedy so differently, but have often seen how individual children hone in on a particular as your daughter did and found it comforting. Lovely piece. Thank you.

Posted : May 10, 2013 09:23



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