I grew up reading my mother's favorite series': The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, and Eleanor Estes' lovable Moffats. There was something endlessly enjoyable about these simple, episodic stories that always involved a gaggle of siblings getting in and out of scrapes. Since I had a gaggle of five siblings myself, I could relate. I fancied myself the Middle Moffat and dreamed of having a boxcar in my backyard.
In recent years, there have been some fantastic tips-of-the-hat to this old format. Lois Lowry's hilarious parody The Willoughby's skewers more than one of my old favorites ("Shouldn't we be orphans?" says Timothy), and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events gives the convention a wry, dark twist.
But Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is a true throw-back. Nostalgic, witty, and a joy to read, it has none of the wry satire of Lowry or Snicket, but it's just as lovable in its own purist way. In the first book of the series, the four Penderwick siblings and their loyal dog Hound go on a three week summer holiday with their father (they are not orphans, but have lost their mother). They get in and out of hilarious and breath-taking scrapes involving an angry bull, a lost rabbit, and the terribly mean and snobbish Mrs. Tifton.
Of course there is a love interest for oldest daughter Rosalind, and of course Skye is a tomboy, Jane is a dreamer, and Batty is the most lovable little girl you ever saw in a pair of wings. But the story is so charming that the conventions work and draw you along, and you find yourself gripping the book and think-shouting "Run, Batty, run!" when that angry bull comes along.
If you are looking for a book for the 8-12 year old set, or a nighttime read-aloud for a gaggle of siblings, you simply cannot go wrong with The Penderwicks.
The Penderwicks deservingly won the 2005 National Book Award.
You can see all of Jeanne Birdsall's pets (including Stanley the snail) here.