Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (2015)

Life has changed for the Penderwicks. Rosalind is away at college falling in love with a pretentious jerk, and neighbor Nick Geiger has joined the military. Jeffrey is in love with Skye, and Batty is caught in the middle between the three older sisters with whom she shares a mother, and two younger siblings, step-brother Ben and two-year-old half-sister Lydia. Batty, now in fifth grade, is also struggling to come to terms with a talent for singing that has recently been recognized by her music teacher at school. To raise money for singing lessons, she starts an odd-job service in the neighborhood, which leads to her walking two dogs - a painful experience, since she blames herself for the recent loss of the family dog, Hound. After overhearing a late-night conversation between Skye and Jeffrey, Batty also begins blaming herself for another, greater loss - that of her mother, shortly after her own birth. Spring on Gardam Street is a brand-new season filled with misunderstandings, difficult truths and deep emotions.

Compared with the second and third Penderwick books, both of which relied heavily on coincidence to further their plots, this book is a major improvement. While there is still a sense that everything in the Penderwicks' world is a little bit rosier than the rest of the universe, there is also a truth to the feelings Batty experiences as she begins to come into her own as a person, not just as a little sister or a big sister. The jump ahead in time is not nearly as jarring as expected, and it is wonderful to gain an even greater understanding of what everyday life is like on Gardam Street, and in Batty's school.

The plot did feel a little thin, as the tension between Skye and Batty was not well-developed in previous books, and the revelation Batty has about her mother's death isn't really that much of a surprise. (At least not for adults. Maybe for kids.) There are also way too many names in the story. Every character, it seems, no matter how minor, has an unusual or ethnic name, but no personality or role in the plot. There are already at least ten main characters, so adding these extra people into the text seems like a sure way to confuse readers. There are also a lot of references to contemporary books and authors that are probably going to make this book feel dated by the time the next one comes out.

Overall, there is lots to love in this book, and it was a pleasant read. It would be hard for any book of this series to live up to the charm of the first one, but this is a solid novel that will appeal not just to Penderwicks fans, but also to kids who like introspective, shy, and emotional characters, such as those who appear in Linda Urban's novels Hound Dog True and The Center of Everything.

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