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A Modern Kids' Adventure Story
"The Penderwicks", and a followup to my earlier post about kids' novels
Back in my childhood, some of the books I enjoyed were stories of children having exciting but realistic adventures in the real world. I wrote last December about rereading some of them - I still like the stories they told, and I noticed that most of them were written during the mid-twentieth century. As I mentioned then, I haven't really followed modern kids' books. But, I have the impression that, as childhood has changed, their horizons have tended to get smaller. And, I said, that's unfortunate.
A little after I published that post, my sister recommended to me a recent children's series set in the modern day: the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall, published in five books from 2005-2018. It's a fun series, and at least at the beginning it tries to be the same sort of book from the mid-twentieth-century I enjoyed in my own childhood: kids having realistic adventures in the contemporary world.
The author, Birdsall, explains in the afterword to the first book that she was consciously trying to write in an even older tradition of story, reaching back at least to Louisa May Alcott in the nineteenth century. It worked then - Alcott was a bestselling author in her day - and it works for Birdsall now. Her style in the first several books, and her colorful characters, echo the best parts of previous decades' realistic children's writers. On top of those similarities of color and style, even in-universe, The Penderwicks (Book One of the series), reads as if we'd stepped into a timeless world where nothing except a couple mentions of typing on computers ruled out its being set even as early as the 1930's. The colorful characters could've come from any era; their summer vacation could've been in any era; the dead mother in their backstory could've been from any era; even their freedom to roam the vacation estate (and get into trouble with the local wildlife, befriend the son of the estate's owner much to the dismay of his overbearing mother, and more) could've been in any era.
I love the ensemble cast here, and I love their vivid and attention-catching traits. The Penderwick kids have their own family microculture - or rather, their own sibling microculture, and we even see their dad several times as a bemused onlooker. They have their own tradition of official MOPS, "Meetings of Penderwick Sisters" (later "Siblings"), they hold high their own interpretation of the "Penderwick Family Honor" - on top of their own individual traits like Sky's hyperactive love of science or Jane's storytelling. And, their logic is captured in a relatable and sympathetic way in their narration, however wild their actions might look from outside.
Things became more clearly contemporary starting in Book Two, as the Penderwicks have returned home from their summer vacation to what's clearly a modern public school (with homework, projects, a school play, and all the other trappings). In one plot thread, there's another fun ensemble plot where the kids are merrily doing each other's homework until it gets sticky with public recognition and turns palpably dishonorable. Meanwhile in another thread, their aunt prevails upon their father that, five years after his wife's death, it's time to try dating again... leaving all the girls plotting against the idea of having a stepmother.
Here, as in Book One, the author frames the challenges well so the kids can realistically solve them through their own efforts (as protagonists must do, to be protagonists of good stories) while neither scaling the problems down nor making the grown-ups unrealistically passive. I wrote in my earlier post about how my childhood books would carefully arrange things so the problems were things the young protagonists could solve - here, Birdsall doesn't do that, but rather has her young protagonists give the right push so the grown-ups can finish solving things in the right way. When Jeffrey comes to a livable compromise with his mother (the estate owner from Book One), it's the Penderwicks' father negotiating - but only because the girls showed him it was necessary. Or when the Penderwicks' father remarries - the romance was his doing (offstage), but it was the kids who introduced them.
In Book Three, things continue with another fun smaller-ensemble plot as the kids split up for separate summer vacations. As a sidenote, this's also where cellphones first show up - but they're apparently dumbphones; the kids only use them to occasionally call (or miss calls from) their sister in New Jersey.
But in Book Four, the author timeskips and changes to another subgenre. Everyone is five years older; time has moved on and changed the family subculture (in addition to the changes from the new marriage); the older sisters are dating and one is at college; we follow now-ten-year-old Batty, herself, in a mostly-internal single-protagonist plot. Amid dealing with self-consciousness about her singing voice, she overhears one of her older sisters saying that their mother died from pregnancy complications while carrying Batty. The emotional roller coaster continues up to - just like in the previous books - a very well-planned crescendo and climax.
The fifth and last book is again five years in the future from book four, and narrated by Lydia, who wasn't even born till after book three. The oldest sister is getting married, at the same estate they visited in book one - now under new ownership, though the old owner is hanging around being annoying. This's clearly from Lydia's perspective, with even fewer of the old character dynamics than in the last book.
The dominant themes by now are nostalgia and moving forwards. The one time the older sisters try to keep up the family tradition of secret meetings, it's interrupted by wedding logistics. On the one hand, that's very realistic; I had some of these same feelings about things changing when my own sister got married. On the other hand, I liked the old character dynamics of the Penderwicks.
Looking back now, the series feels almost like two series joined together. On the other hand, this's not unrealistic. Family microcultures change just by time and by growing up, as I know from my own experience, even without remarriage and new baby siblings like the Penderwicks had.
This's especially the case in the modern world. In the nineteenth century, Little Women could continue almost-uninterrupted through the March sisters growing up - because they kept living at home till marriage, and when Meg did marry, she and her husband lived right next door. At the time, this was normal - several generations after the March's, my grandmother remembered all her neighbors being surprised when she and her husband moved across the country.
But that doesn't happen much anymore. I can only remember one or two of my own childhood friends who stayed in town. It would be more surprising if the Penderwicks did stay in each other's lives so much as they went off to college. I guess I just wish the first part were longer.
But without an ensemble cast, our lone protagonists - ten-year-old Batty or ten-year-old Lydia - need to hold more weight by themselves. Each of them carries her story decently enough, but not as well as the sisters did all together before. And frankly, I think the elder three sisters - at least Sky and Jane, if not Rosaline too - are more colorful characters than Batty or Lydia, and could have carried a story better by themselves. They also feel spunkier than the younger sisters, and more able to carry a story with external action.
So, modern children's books of this realistic adventure style set in the modern world (vaguely, without a specific year attached at any point) are possible. My doubts last year were too pessimistic. I'm glad that Birdsall has proven this, and I'm glad my sister recommended them to me.
But, The Penderwicks reinforces what I was thinking about the difficulties of writing this sort of book in the modern era. With children having less freedom and agency in the modern day, an author needs to carefully frame things so their child protagonists can have agency to go through with the plot. In the modern day, most children aren't able to freely travel around their hometowns, schoolwork and organized activities are eating up free time, and much of the rest of it is going into cellphones and computers. It's hard to fit in an adventure story around this. Birdsall manages it here by setting two books (One and Five) on a country estate, a third book (Three) in a small vacation town, and the external plots of the last two (Two and Four) revolve around school and a few neighbors. Also, it's going to get even harder in the future. Smartphones and the Internet are barely mentioned in the series; the first point I noticed the kids having phones was in Book Three, and there they're only used for calls. That was realistic enough in 2011 when Book Three was published, but it's starting to strain credulity now.
On top of this, the problems need to be carefully calibrated so modern young protagonists can solve them. Birdsall flips this by framing the solution so it feels like the young protagonists have solved it when they actually just started the solution. So, she's able to include more complicated interpersonal problems in her stories. She's surmounted the challenge of writing a modern kids' adventure story, but examining her books, it's even clearer now that it is a challenge.
There're a lot of other ways in which The Penderwicks is different from the books I was reading in my own childhood. But the genre had changed before then, too. A lot of the books I was reading then were far older than me, and most of my own childhood friends were watching television at least as much as reading. I'm glad that the core essence has remained, though, at least to some extent - I liked it a lot in my own childhood, I think it gave me something important, and I hope it'll do the same thing for the children of today.
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