The Penderwicks

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is a sweet story about the adventures of the four Penderwick sisters—Rosalind, age 12; Skye, age 11; Jane, age 10; Batty, age 4—during their three weeks renting a summer house in the Berkshire Mountains with their father and Hound the dog. They befriend Jeffrey—the 11 year old son of the terrifying Mrs. Tifton—and Cagney, the young and handsome gardener.

The prose, adventures, and characters are delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with the Penderwicks. The plot moves along at a decent clip, detailing several of their adventures over their three week vacation. There is tension and excitement, but mostly on a level most kids can identify with from their own lives.

If you loved books like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and so on but you wish they were more up-to-date, this is the perfect book for you. Jane writes books by hand, but then types them on her father’s computer. Jane, Skye, and Jeffrey play soccer together. There’s a timelessness to the story but the details and language are familiar and modern.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


The girls’ mother died of cancer soon after Batty was born. We hear some of the story through memories, but the active grief has faded. Mrs. Penderwick is much missed, but the family is coping.


This is above all a story of family. Mr. Penderwick is a loving father, trying to raise his four daughters to the best of his ability. Like so many fathers in kids’ novels, he’s a bit distracted by his work. But he’s a voice of reason and a true comfort when his girls are hurting.

Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother, stands in stark contrast to Mr. Penderwick. At first she comes across as strict to the point of not seeming to care about her son. Mr. Penderwick is certain that she’s only trying to do what’s best for him—she, too, is a single parent—and in the end this proves to be true. When she finally realizes that she’s pushing Jeffrey toward what she wants for him and not what he wants for himself, they reconcile and reach a compromise—Jeffrey will still attend boarding school, but instead of military school like his grandfather, he’ll go to a school where he can study music. Mrs. Tifton will still marry her fiancé even though Jeffrey isn’t particularly fond of him.

The sisters are delightful. They each have a character trait that makes them stand out to the reader as distinct characters, and the point of view gracefully transfers from girl to girl, depending on what’s appropriate for the story. They love each other, but they get on each other’s nerves, too. Occasionally they fight, but then they make up. It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I had a sister—preferably three—because the Penderwick sisters are so much fun to spend time with and I wanted to be part of their group.


While in some ways the girls are fairly traditional (they bake cookies, they get dressed up for luncheon at the big house), this always feels like it’s by choice. Rosalind, as the oldest, is very maternal. Skye is a tomboy—somewhat combative, loves math and sports—yet it never feels like that’s a fault. It’s just her. Skye and Jane both become good friends with Jeffrey, and there’s absolutely no love triangle. Occasionally there’s a little jealousy over a cool new friend, but it never gets into catty territory. Dexter—Mrs. Tifton’s hated fiancé—seems a little sexist but there’s nothing major. Jeffrey is supposed to grow up into a military career like his grandfather, but instead he wants to pursue music.


The romantic scene between Mrs. Tifton and Dexter that the kids see by accident is exactly as icky as you’d expect it to be—the kids are fairly horrified by both the kissing and its implications for Jeffrey. Rosalind develops her first serious crush on Cagney, who’s 19 years old. He’s a good friend to her, obviously not thinking about her in romantic sense. Eventually she overhears Cagney saying as much to a girl his age and Rosalind is mortified. Then she realizes that she’s too young for him and that it’s better this way. He tells her that it didn’t work out with the other girl because she wasn’t easy to talk to like Rosalind is. He says that he hopes she stays that way—it’s a good skill for when she’s ready to think about boys. The story never diminishes the trauma of that first unrequited love, yet everyone ends up ok in the end.


There are definitely some secrets kept, but the Penderwick Family Honor requires that “All swear to keep secret what is said here, even from Daddy, unless you think someone might do something truly bad.” And when it comes down to it, they won’t lie to their father, allowing him to read between the lines as necessary. Overall, this seems reasonable to me and therefore didn’t bother me.


Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey, and Dexter are all obviously higher class. For Mrs. Tifton and Dexter, this is reason to look down on others. Jeffrey’s father was from Mrs. Tifton’s early mistake of marrying someone from a different class—it didn’t last long, and she came home to her father’s house to raise her son alone. Jeffrey, however, doesn’t seem to be affected by class so much. He wants to do what he loves and hang out with people he likes. Mrs. Tifton doesn’t exactly change her tune by the end, but she does seem to be more flexible.


I loved this book, and I’d recommend it for ages 8 to 13. I think it will likely appeal to girls more than boys due to the female protagonists, but I think that’s rather a shame. It’s not an earthshattering plot, no one needs to save the world, and although Batty gets herself into some potentially dangerous scrapes, it never seems like she’s truly in danger of dying. It just isn’t that kind of book. It’s a sweet, almost relaxing, read.


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
Published in 2005 by Yearling
First in a series (see also The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette)
Read my daughter’s copy

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