July 17, 2011
There's an alternate way to get a similar feeling, though: the subgenre of new children's books that I'd term nostalgic. These books reproduce the feel, in illustrations or storyline or overall writing style or all of the above, of classic children's lit of a bygone age. They need to be well executed, of course—the kids who are still, after all, their primary audience won't be interested in the slightest if they're not—but when they are, they get into special territory: magical to parents and children alike.
That's pretty much what Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks books are like. The chapter-book series, whose first entry won a National Book Award for Children in 2005, is one of those stories of the day-to-day adventures of a tight-knit family that has been a cornerstone of children's literature going all the way back to Little Women. And without mimicking in any way—her style is her own, ultimately—Birdsall places her books firmly in that vein, as well as that of other classics like Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and The Railway Children. Parents who are fans of this kind of book—you know who you are—will melt from the moment they see the lovely, nostalgia-evocative cover art. (The only drawback for adults is that the occasional reminders that these books are set in the present are really jarring; the tone and subject matter lull you into a world that you don't expect to have call waiting!)
Birdsall grabs the kids and keeps them, too, never fear, with the adventures of Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty Penderwick, four Massachusetts sisters ranging from young teenager to preschooler. The third book in the series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, returns to the summer-vacation setting of the original, with the first source of tension being the fact that the younger three sisters will be separated from the oldest, Rosalind, for essentially the first time in any of their lives as they head up to their aunt's house in Maine. As in the earlier books, the author has made each of the girls so three-dimensional, so real, that their interactions, their conflicts, and their love for each other are both engrossing and ultimately endearing. (Let's just say there's a good reason Birdsall got that award.)
Kids—yes, particularly girls, but not solely—of the voracious-reader variety who are between 8 and 12 or so will adore these books. And their parents—again, not just moms—will get a nice faux-nostalgia kick at the same time.
[Photo: Whitney Webster]