Think back to your favorite summer vacation—did it have times of relaxation? Scenes of adventure? Perhaps new friendships forged? Maybe a bit of all three. All these great elements of a good summer adventure story can be found in Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. I picked this up a few months ago and was certain I had read it years ago as a child; it has such an air of timelessness about it. I was wrong—it was published in 2005—but the timelessness extends even to the text, which is refreshingly old-fashioned and uncomplicated without being simplistic.
The Penderwick sisters—Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty—are spending their summer vacation with their botanist father and faithful canine companion, Hound, at a cottage on the Berkshire mountain estate of Arundel. The main estate is inhabited by a friendly gardener, a lovable cook, a Very Interesting Boy named Jeffrey, and Jeffrey’s mother, Mrs. Tifton. Determined to send Jeffrey to military school and intolerant of Hound romping around the estate’s gardens, Mrs. Tifton becomes the nemesis of what is soon a tight-knit band of the Penderwick sisters and Jeffrey. The sisters are such fun to read about; Birdsall gives each one a charming and distinct voice. Rosalind is the oldest and tries to be sensible, Jane is a dreamy writer, Skye is an impulsive tomboy, and Batty is four years old and wears a pair of butterfly wings everywhere. They’re not one dimensional or dominated by a sole interest; each has a different hobby, but all of them are equally happy to be playing an intense game of soccer in the yard, baking brownies, or listening to a story. (And they all won points from me for referencing Cair Paravel in the first chapter.) Here’s a short excerpt from the book:
Is there such a thing as a perfect week? A perfect day, maybe, but seven whole days of paradise? The Penderwicks would say yes, that the seven days between their visit to the Arundel attic and Jeffrey’s birthday party would be forever locked in their memories as perfect. Skye liked to say later that the week seemed that way only because they had not yet met Mrs. Tifton. Maybe she was right. Certainly, through either good luck (Skye’s theory) or magic (Jane’s), Mrs. Tifton did stay out of sight all the way up until the birthday party, leaving Arundel and its treasures to the children.
I think the best summer adventure stories have a great air of nostalgia about them, but are also equally enjoyable for kids—think The Sandlot or Goonies. Birdsall’s tale is the most fun, delightful, pure story I’ve read in a long time. This one would make a great read-aloud during a rainy summer day or on a long family car trip. The Penderwicks are back for more adventures in three following books, and I can’t wait to get my hands on them.
What are some other summer vacation stories that you’ve read and enjoyed?