Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (2011)

I only discovered the Penderwicks a short time ago, but I fell very deeply in love with them very quickly. Here on the blog, I listed ten things I love about the Penderwick family, which included my beloved favorite character, Batty, Hound, the lovable family dog, Mr. Penderwick's use of Latin phrases, and of course, the "Penderwick family honor." From the moment I finished The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, I started counting down to the third book, wondering how I would ever make it until publication day. When The Penderwicks at Point Mouette finally arrived at my library, one long week after its publication, I snatched it up before anyone could touch it and took it home right away! Then, over the next couple of weeks, my boyfriend and I read it aloud to each other.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is a summer vacation story, set one year after the first Penderwicks book. Rosalind heads to New Jersey with her friend, Anna, for two weeks, while Mr. Penderwick and Iantha take a honeymoon trip to Europe with Ben. This leaves Skye, Jane, and Batty to join Aunt Claire at Birches, a beach house in Maine, for their own vacation. While there, Skye steps up as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) , Batty discovers hidden musical talent, and Jane finds and loses her first love. There's also a new cast of supporting characters, and a fair amount of time spent with Jeffrey. 

Since finishing the book, I have seen a lot of really lovely reviews. Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 even included the book in her recent Newbery/Caldecott prediction post. But I have to confess that, for me, this book did not fully live up to the standards set by the first two, and I finished it feeling somewhat let down.

Before I explain why, though, let me first talk about what I loved, because there were many things.

First of all, I finally feel like I know Skye and Jane as characters. As much as I enjoy having the full Penderwick family together, I was pleased to have Rosalind in New Jersey for this book, because it gave the other three sisters more time to shine. The concept of the OAP appealed to me in the first two books, and I loved getting to see Skye in that position. I also really loved the continuation of Jane's writing, as she attempted to write a Sabrina Starr book about falling in love, but suffered from seemingly insurmountable writer's block. And Batty was as delightful as ever. Her newfound independence in the absence of Rosalind made me feel oddly proud of her, and the discovery of her unexpected musical talent added a new layer to her character. I also enjoyed her friendship with Mercedes.

But there were some definite weaknesses in this book. For one thing, I was really disappointed that Iantha, Mr. Penderwick and Ben did not appear at all in the entire story. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street left me wanting to know what life would be like in this new family, and that was the story I wanted to hear. I'd feel a little better if I thought we'd get that story in the next book, but Jeanne Birdsall has already said that the next book will skip ahead a few years, so our opportunity to see the new family come together is lost forever. I suppose it's a compliment to the series that I care so much about the characters, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel cheated.

My other big complaint has to do with Jeffrey. I like him as much as I like any character in these books, and his friendship to each of the Penderwick girls is wonderful. But in this book, it felt like Jeffrey really stole the show. There are minor dramas in each of the Penderwicks' lives, but it is ultimately Jeffrey who has the story's great revelation, and in the most contrived way. I can't say much more without including spoilers, which I always aim to avoid, but I felt as though the climax of this book required me to suspend my disbelief much more than it should have. I know it's a children's book, and maybe I am a little bit rigid when it comes to bending the rules of reality, but I just couldn't buy into what happens, even if it does make a heck of a twist.

In the end, when it came time for awarding stars on Goodreads, I gave this book four, rather than five. That is to say, I still really loved reading it, even if parts of it made me roll my eyes. Despite its flaws, the book still gets a strong  recommendation from me, as does the entire series.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

All About the Sleepover Squad Series

The Sleepover Squad series is a set of seven titles for new chapter book readers. It began publication in 2007 and finished in 2008. The same series was published in the UK as both The Pyjama Gang and The Sleepover Gang. (Though my understanding is that Americanisms were left in, causing some possible confusion.)

The books focus on four diverse second-grade girls:

  • Emily is smart, sensitive and shy. She is an only child, and her gardener mother and high school teacher father are somewhat overprotective parents.
  • Taylor comes from a wealthy family, and her household has hired help. She is a fearless, impatient, and outspoken kid.
  • Kara is African-American and comes from a family filled with rambunctious (and obnoxious) boys.
  • Jo speaks Spanish as well as English, and her calm, logical approach often helps the squad get through tough situations.

Though the books are told in the third person, each one sticks mainly with the point of view of one girl.

These are the three that I've read:
  • #1 Sleeping Over (2007), focuses on Emily's point of view as she tries to convince her parents that she is old enough for slumber parties.
  • #2 Camping Out (2007), deals with Taylor's insect phobia, which makes her hesitant about camping out in a tent.
  • #3 Trouble with Brothers (2007), sees Kara dealing with her four brothers'
    plans to sabotage the sleepover she plans to host at her house.
There are four others:
  • #4 Keeping Secrets (2008) is about Jo's spelling bee victory and her concerns that her friends are keeping things from her.
  • #5 Pony Party (2008) is about Emily's pony-themed sleepover featuring a real live pony.
  • #6 The New Girl (2008) introduces Jo's cousin Ceci into the group, and questions whether the Sleepover Squad has room for one more member.
  • #7 Girls vs. Boys (2009) seems to be unavailable at this time, and I wasn't able to locate the physical book or a summary. I'm honestly not sure whether it was even published.
These books are very gentle, tame reads that reflect day to day life for many average second grade girls. The girls' personalities are different enough from one another that any girl reading the books will find something to relate to, and though the parents are present in each story, it is the Squad itself that comes together to help one another with any problems that arise.

The series reminds me a little bit of the Baby-sitters Club Little Sister books from my own childhood, as well as the newer Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew series (minus the mystery elements.) The writing is probably on par with something like Rainbow Magic  - that is, formulaic, predictable, and at times, just plain boring - but the notion of a sleepover club has definite appeal to the target age group, and the black and white illustrations by Julia Denos really stand out in their depictions of each girl's exact appearance and personality. Each book also includes slumber party activity suggestions - most of them are pretty easy to come up with on your own, but it's still a nice added feature.

Overall, I think these books are okay, but not great. There are other chapter book series for this age group that I like better - A to Z MysteriesIvy & BeanClementineJudy MoodyHorrible Harry, even Magic Treehouse - but girls who have run out of things to read will probably enjoy these, even if the quality of writing is only so-so. I'm not saying little girls should skip them altogether, but I think it's safe to say your young chapter book reader's not missing anything important if she hasn't discovered them yet.