The Penderwicks is not just one of my favorite ongoing series; it is one of my favorite series of all time. I'm always astounded by the depth of emotion and diverse, realistic relationship dynamics Birdsall is able to capture with these characters. The Penderwicks in Spring surpassed my expectations even though they were astronomically high already. It is now my favorite, having edged out The Penderwicks on Gardam Street.
Minor spoilers for first three book are in this review. If you haven't read this series, get started:
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette
Spring is coming to Gardam Street and Batty and Ben Penderwick couldn't be more excited. The season is bringing with it anticipation and new opportunities. Nick Geiger, the Penderwicks' neighbor, is returning home on leave from the Army after being at war. Both Skye and Batty have approaching birthdays bringing Jeffrey and Rosalind to Gardam Street twice within several weeks. And Batty has a newly discovered talent she can't wait to share with her family at her party. In order to prepare for extra music lessons, Batty has begun a dog walking business. Ben's just happy to have his hero back on the street, a male he can bond with when he's surrounded by sisters. But then everything starts to fall apart. The car dies. Jeffrey and Skye are locked in a battle over the status of their relationship. Rosalind brings home a boy from college who none of the younger Penderwicks (or their parents) like. When Batty begins to hope her birthday will be less stressful than Skye's, she overhears a revelation that leaves her devastated and alone. Ben knows something is wrong, but doesn't know what or how he can help. As Batty's eleventh birthday approaches, she falls more and more silent and her family becomes greatly concerned. Batty needs to find the courage to turn to them for help, but given what she now knows, how can she?
Batty is officially my favorite Penderwick. Before it was always Rosalind followed closely by Skye. Batty and Jane were both likeable, but not as interesting to me. One thing that has always impressed me about Birdsall's writing is how well she grows the kids from book to book, but the first three all took place within a year of each other. The Penderwicks in Spring jumps ahead five years form Point Mouette. Each of the original characters maintain the basics of the personalities we have come to love, but they are older now. Batty is still painfully shy. Introverted and far more reserved than her older sisters, she is always trying to escape from the groups of teenagers constantly in her house. She escapes into the world of her music and by helping with Ben and the newest Penderwick, Lydia. Her heart is huge. She is incredibly sensitive. She's a happy little girl though who loves life and everything in it. And then she doesn't anymore. I'm floored by how well Birdsall wrote this. This is one of the threads of the Penderwick story that needed to be dealt with. The relationship between Skye and Batty has always been fraught. Seeing it from Batty's point of view is heartbreaking, particularly after she overhears Skye reveal a devastating opinion that opens up a pit of grief and heartbreak in Batty she didn't ever realize she was caring around. I cried so much for this little girl while reading, but it was a cathartic and good sort of crying-just as Batty's crisis is a good cathartic devastation for the entire Penderwick family. This was tricky because Skye is a great favorite of many readers. Birdsall could have left her looking like quite the selfish and cold-hearted sister. But life and family is never as black and white as that, and the way Birdsall finessed and resolved the situation is nothing short of beautiful. I love when I can feel so in tune with characters in a book that their struggles and triumphs become real to me and feel so much for them. All the Penderwicks are important and present for this story, but Batty is the star and she truly shines.
Skye and Jane are now at the end of high school. Their sisterly bond is as strong as ever and they still foil each other in the same wonderful ways they did when they were younger. Jane has a constant group of friends over, many of them boys so she can observe and write about them in her stories. Skye is focusing on graduation and going to college. She has her friends from soccer. Jeffrey's relationship with the family is still strong, but he and Skye are having trouble and it spills into his relationships with everyone else. (This is particularly devastating for Batty.) Rosalind is in college, but still manages to be the responsible, loving, focused, older sister. Despite her infatuation with a pompous windbag of an upperclassman that distracts her for a bit, she is still willing to listen to and help her siblings.
There is a great deal of fun and humor injected into the book via the two youngest Penderwicks. Ben, now seven, finds himself often exasperated by all the girls in his life. His bond with Batty is strong though and they complement each other in a similar way to Skye and Jane. They are a strong team. Lydia is the newest addition to the family. Two years old and as adorable as can be, she adds a wonderful new voice to the family dynamic.
It is interesting to me that my two favorite books in the series are the ones that take place at the house on Gardam Street, and not during the summer vacations. I think a large part of this is due to the presence of the Geiger brothers. (Tommy, also away at college and no longer Rosy's boyfriend, isn't in it that much, but is mentioned often.) Nick is amazing though. His older brother concern and care for Batty and Ben is incredibly touching. He is one of my favorite parts of this book. And I really like how Birdsall shows the importance of community and neighbors through their relationship. Martin and Iantha are amazing parents, but even the most amazing of parents miss thing, particularly when they have six kids.
Basically this is as good as it gets when it comes to MG fiction. I flagged so many pages with excellent quotes. I love the characters, the relationships, the way Birdasall was able to balance humor and grief, and the way she made this so emotive without resorting to cliches or manipulating of emotions.
This is the penultimate book in the Penderwick series. There will be one more. The wait for it will be hard, but man Birdsall tells such wonderful stories. I love that her publisher gives her the time she needs to get them perfect.
I read an ARC received by the publisher, Random House Children's, at ALA Midwinter. The Penderwicks in Spring is available March 24.