Kitty Corner: ‘The Penderwicks’ paints a poignant portrait of the joy of childhood

Kitty Guo | Daily Trojan

It should come as no surprise that, as a kid, I was a voracious reader. After blazing my way through the Harry Potter series and whatnot, my third grade teacher recommended that I read The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.

“You’re going to love it,” she told me. “It’s one of my favorite children’s books.”

She was right, of course. I did love it, and it’s also become one of my favorite children’s books. Obviously, it’s not some brilliant, experimental, genre-bending piece of literature, and it may not have the same nostalgic effect on first-time adult readers who didn’t grow up with the characters. But, because I did, it is near and dear to my heart.

The Penderwicks tells the story of four sisters, their father and their dog. They are on their way to Arundel, a gorgeous, sprawling estate where they have rented a cottage for the summer. There’s Rosalind, the oldest, practical yet romantic; Skye, stubborn and hot-headed but fiercely loyal; Jane, a fanciful, head-in-the-clouds type who never goes anywhere without her notebook; and shy little Batty, whose constant companions are the family dog, Hound, and her butterfly wings. They meet a boy named Jeffrey, the son of Arundel’s owner, and, with a whole three months to exhaust, plenty of adventures ensue.

Growing up in the cookie cutter SoCal suburbs, I yearned for the childhood described in The Penderwicks — that singularly New England experience characterized by dusty attics and musty basements, rambling pastures and mysterious forests where magic shimmered in the air. My own backyard consisted of a little rectangular concrete garden where a few scraggly roses and a prickly honeysuckle bush struggled to eke out a living. I remember eyeing the banal plastic blinds that shuttered my bedroom window and aching instead for an airy bay window with a window seat where I could curl up with a blanket and a book.

Photo courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

And, also, as an only child, I dreamed of siblings; the Penderwicks’ constant chaos, affectionate arguments and lively hijinks cut through the silence of my afternoons while I waited for both my parents to come home from work. Siblings would always keep you company if you wanted it; and if you didn’t, you were free to wander off on your own for a bit and dream, and everyone would have the good sense to leave you alone — at least until it was time for dinner, anyway.

When I first read The Penderwicks, I was eight years old, somewhere between 10-year-old Jane and four-year-old Batty. Over the years, as author Jeanne Birdsall has released sequels, the characters have grown up and hit all their milestones, right alongside me. So far, Birdsall has published four out of five books in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette and The Penderwicks in Spring. The final installment, Penderwicks at Last, is set to be released May 15. Batty will be in college. Someone is getting married. I’m definitely going to cry.

The Penderwicks have been my pseudo siblings, characters I love like my own family. The memories of my own youth are woven into those of Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty. I read the books during a road trip through Utah, utterly disregarding the sweeping views; in the green room backstage amid rehearsals for Coppelia; while waiting for my friends to finish their swimming lessons, the smell of chlorine in my nose and the poolside breeze fluttering the pages.

Rereading The Penderwicks now, more than a decade after I first picked it up, I am instantly transported back to the bright, unadulterated joys of childhood, the hazy euphoria of summer vacation — long days and golden twilights, climbing trees and catching fireflies, “growing up” a distant concept residing beyond the warm and endless days stretching out before me, full of promise.

Kitty Guo is a sophomore majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.