The Penderwicks was the Great Middle Grade Reads group’s September Book of the Month. I’ve had it on my list since 2013, possibly not from being a BOTM runner-up, as I thought, but because MG King cited it in a discussion thread on ‘The Dead Parent Society’ which ran from 2013 through to early 2015. It seems this book has resurrected the discussion.
Looking back though the year I’ve missed out most of the GMGR’s books of the month that I’ve read. So I’m doing a quick catch up here, for The Penderwicks, Floodland, Seedfolks, and the Secret Garden.
The Penderwicks (subtitled in the original versions: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy)
By Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwick sisters busily discover the summertime magic of Arundel estate’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. Best of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, the perfect companion for their adventures. Icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is less pleased with the Penderwicks than Jeffrey, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Is that any fun? For sure the summer will be unforgettable.
Controversy raged about The Penderwicks. Four girls and their widowed father (should that be widowered?) take a summer holiday in a cottage on the estate of a large house. They are allowed free range of the grounds, as described in the Ts&Cs for the letting. The dog is sort of smuggled in, but given a pen has been prepared for him, it was definitely disclosed, if not to the actual owner of the pile. Father is an absent-minded professor, according to some. I thought he was a typical dad of my youth, letting the kids enjoy their holiday in a safe place, while he relaxed with his own interests.
And there lies the problem. Despite being published in 2005, the Penderwicks harks back to somewhere around the 1950s and 60s, but never being specific. The lack of parental care and guidance shocked some of our bookclub members. I thought it all perfectly normal, especially as they had a safe space to have their adventures. It was a fun read for an older reader who remembered the carefree days of their youth. And helping out a boy in dire need of parental understanding was something anyone would have done. Apparently not so now. Maybe the current flock of MG age readers shouldn’t be given such ideas, as they are so totally irresponsible it would lead them astray.
I think I’d better stop reading MG books.
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?
One of the most delightful and enduring classics of children’s literature, The Secret Garden has remained a firm favorite with children the world over ever since it made its first appearance. Initially published as a serial story in 1910 in The American Magazine, it was brought out in novel form in 1911.
Ever since I was a young girl I’ve hated this book. I decided I’d better read it again with an open mind, especially since it was a popular choice for April’s BOTM, and several people raved about ‘their favourite’. The blurb makes it sound so good. I discovered I’ve long mixed it up in my memory with another secret garden, which the boy finds when the clock strikes thirteen. (I’ve worked out that’s Tom’s Midnight Garden).
The trouble is, there is so much wrong with the book, apart from the sickly sweetness of Mary bringing Colin out of his cloistered world into one where he can be an active child again. I mean, in India, Mary’s parents die of cholera, and Mary is shipped back to an unheated Yorkshire mansion, with the wind whipping over the moors, at the tail-end of autumn, and she happily goes outside to play without a coat on. Not a mention of how cold she is, or teeth chattering, or wishing for the burning sun of the Raj.
Then of course she gets to know the gardener and local wild child, Dickon, who is my sort of chap, and a grand lad. He knows all about the robins and the other birds and animals. Now, robins do sing in autumn, and can switch to their spring song almost like clockwork on the winter solstice, but the rest of the birds singing through winter is bizarre.
The servants are all stereotypes, the writing is okay, and I suppose Victorian England is what Americans like best. I was not surprised to find FHB is herself American: I was surprised to discover she’d actually lived in England. Maybe not gone to Yorkshire straight from India, then?
I struggled through for a fair way, trying to control myself, but eventually gave up. I still hate this book. It’s dire. The others still love it. The way dear Mary turns things round for Colin, and the joy of the garden. It’s all so sweet. Yeah.
by Paul Fleischmann
A Vietnamese girl plants six lima beans in a Cleveland vacant lot. Looking down on the immigrant-filled neighborhood, a Romanian woman watches suspiciously. A school janitor gets involved, then a Guatemalan family. Then muscle-bound Curtis, trying to win back Lateesha. Pregnant Maricela. Amir from India. A sense of community sprouts and spreads.
Newbery-winning author Paul Fleischman uses thirteen speakers to bring to life a community garden’s founding and first year. The book’s short length, diverse cast, and suitability for adults as well as children have led it to be used in countless one-book reads in schools and in cities across the country.
The second BOTM for April (theme: garden) was Seedfolks, which sounded modern and interesting. Taking over urban spaces and creating gardens, wildernesses, arboretums, is all the rage. It’s an easy win in the fight against climate change. And lots of people are doing it, especially in urban areas. So the book interested me, and it is well worth reading.
Suitable as an MG read? That is another story. Well, it isn’t really a story. It’s a series of vignettes about the people that got involved, and why. If you are in an urban or culturally diverse area, then it’s a great window on the wider world. I can see it being used in classrooms. But it feels like it’s written for adults, mostly. It’s well worth reading. And it’s probably the smallest book I have on my shelf save for the Flower Fairies books.
by Marcus Sedgwick
What if the sea began to rise . . . and rise . . . until the land began to disappear? A brilliant futuristic fantasy by an acclaimed new writer.
Global warming has caused the sea to rise until cities are turning into islands and civilization is crumbling. Ten-year-old Zoe Black was left behind on Norwich by accident when her parents escaped in the last supply ship to visit the island. Zoe discovers a small rowboat and keeps it a secret until she can set out alone on the great sea to find her parents. She lands on tiny Eels Island, where she must survive in a nightmarish world run by wild children and their boy-leader, Dooby. Zoe and a boy called Munchkin escape and cross the sea to the mainland, to find not only Zoe’s parents but a new family and a new world.
BOTM for May, with a climate change theme. It turned out there are not many MG books with climate change themes prior to 2020, and now there are loads (I’ve reviewed several here in the last eighteen months). I read Floodland in 2011, one of the first MG books I read after the recommendation at that children’s writing event I went to, that got me started. It’s the first review on this blog. Have my views changed?
Apart from feeling shortchanged by the abrupt and rather too cute finish, and my irritation at Mr Sedgwick’s liberties with East Anglian geography, I remain a fan. I did take a star off it, though, only 4 stars for me now. Read the original review here.