Author Interview: Jeanne Birdsall

“I think childhood happens when your parents aren’t watching,” Jeanne Birdsall told me when I interviewed her at the MSLA 2015 conference. Her observation is an excellent insight into what makes her books exceptionally charming and emotionally resonant.

Ms. Birdsall won the National Book Award for The Penderwicks, the first book in what she plans to be a five-book series that follows the Penderwick siblings. These books are a wonderful example of the middle-grade genre, intended for those short but important years when most nine- to twelve-year-olds are reading fluently and eager for age-appropriate, hopeful stories.

The Penderwicks opens during a summer four years after Mrs. Penderwick has died. The four Penderwick girls are being raised by their father, who takes them to the country for the summer. Their adventures there are the kind of adventures children have when free to play and roam in the summer on a farm. The antithesis of a so-called “helicopter parent,” Mr. Penderwick loves his children dearly but allows them to explore their environment. In this story, they rent a cottage on the grounds of a mansion, where they are free to wander and frequently visit with the wealthy child who lives in the main house. This mix of freedom and safety is important to the story, Birdsall notes, but it is also important to the needs of the middle-grade reader. “I did not want the children to be neglected. I want them to have enough safety but know that they can work things out for themselves.”

Birdsall deftly achieves the balance between freedom and security, and though she has only one sibling, she perfectly captures the dynamics of a large family. Growing up as an only child, I loved stories of large families, and if I think about it, I loved the stories of those families exploring the world together. I dreamed of being one of the Little Women, and sighed at the closeness between the Wallace siblings in A Wrinkle in Time. I devoured To Kill a Mockingbird, rereading the tender scenes between Jem and Scout, yearning for that kind of connection. Even Trixie Belden and her brothers made me wish for a larger brood. I had the same nostalgic, loving experience reading The Penderwicks, and coming to know Batty, Jane, Skye, and Rosalind made me eager to participate in such a joyful family.

The Penderwicks is equally as charming for me as an adult reader. However, I am not only an adult, but I am also a parent—a parent of five young children, all between the ages of six and ten. They are loud, they love the outdoors, and they are fiercely independent. In other words, I am now watching children having adventures all around me and watching the realities of the big brood dynamics at play in my life. As an adult reader, I feel an immediate connection to Birdsall’s writing because she so cleverly captures the chaos that can erupt when many children are gathered together, each with their own needs and desires.

Last summer we decided to give The Penderwicks a try in our family. I told Ms. Birdsall I wondered whether or not my children would enjoy it, particularly since I have four boys and one girl. Would they like a story about four sisters? Would they be interested in a story that was solidly realistic adventure rather than their standard fantasy or comedy genres? Would they feel too sad, since Mrs. Penderwick died of the same disease—cancer—that only recently took their grandmother?

The truth is, they’ve loved the books, and that’s why I was so eager to talk to Ms. Birdsall. The audio versions the family listened to during carpool are extraordinarily well done, and it was a joy to listen to them with my children all laughing at the same moments. The kids were excited when I told them I’d be interviewing the author.

My children, like many of Birdsall’s fans, are eager to find out how each of the Penderwick siblings turns out. They know that the answers are coming in The Penderwicks in Spring and in the fifth and last book that Birdsall is crafting right now. You see, as the books go along, Birdsall makes a unique choice by allowing the children to grow up. Rather than continue with episodic stories that keep the girls at the same age they were in The Penderwicks (a strategy which has been employed effectively in many series), or follow their stories into the young adult concerns as they age (think of the differences between Harry Potter books one and seven!), Birdsall keeps the focus on the Penderwick child who is the same age as the average child reader. Thus, in The Penderwicks in Spring she keeps the older Penderwick sisters in the story, but she explained that she deliberately “doesn’t get inside their heads.” In other words, their teenage concerns are not revealed directly, and we hear the story from Batty’s view. The Penderwicks are growing up, but Birdsall deliberately retains the voice, perspective, and tone meant for the middle-grade reader.

So, as the Penderwicks age, so will my children. They will grow, and they will remember when they listened to these stories together, in the van, on the way to school, and the way they felt when each book ended.

When we were talking about the difficulty of writing stories that provided enough adventure Birdsall remarked she is often trying “to find the spots between parenting.” Those are the places that offer adventure for children, as long as those opportunities for adventure are not caused by the lack of nurturing.

We are ready to start book four, The Penderwicks in Spring, to see how Batty’s dog-walking business turns out, and to get to know the newest Penderwick sibling. And I’ll be looking for tips on how to give my own children the space to have a rich childhood—one where they can have the kind of adventures they might only have when I am not looking.

We are giving away four ARCs of The Penderwicks in Spring! The drawing will close at midnight on Friday, April 18th and the winner will be announced on Tuesday, April 21st.

 

Heather Richard is a former high school English teacher, a new high school librarian, and a children’s book writer. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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