Round 2, Match 3: Mine for Keeps vs. The Penderwicks in Spring

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Judged by Hallie • Find her on Goodreads


This year I got quite lucky in the four possible books for my match-up, as all were, in a sense, family stories. I’d have thought this was evidence of Beth’s arcane criteria for bracketing, back in the days before I learned how she actually chose brackets. There was even a little bonus happy because they broke down as an old book against a very recent one in each first round pairing; serendipitous symmetry is the best. Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about this, somehow managing to forget that A Ring of Endless Light is both for older readers and more fantasy than not, although I’d still consider it to be more of a family story than many YA novels. The grouping, less perfect than I’d originally thought, was only of any relevance to me, anyway, as I was reading my bracket books and waiting to hear which two I’d get. It is significant, all the same, that yet another MG family story, Binny in Secret, was the first book I read for this year’s Battle, because it was in my head (as a practically perfect book of its type) while I read Mine for Keeps and Listen, Slowly, and reread all four Penderwicks books

I’d heard of Jean Little, of course, but knew nothing about Mine for Keeps before I read it. A dog (as long as it’s not included for the multiple-tissue value of its death); a kid with a disability learning to fit into a new school; family – sounded great. It did have a lot of charming elements, not limited to the dog, or multiple dogs, as it turned out. Sally is much braver than she or others realise, and the adult reader can marvel at how she’s expected to adjust while going from a boarding school for children with disabilities to living at home and going to the local public school, with very little help. It’s rather fascinating to see how things have changed regarding disabled kids in public schools, something I also appreciated in last year’s Izzy, Willy-Nilly. It’s very obvious that the author had a strong knowledge of cerebral palsy, and manages to get in good explanations of what a disease like that can look like, with even a few laughs along the way. Sal’s younger sister is given the explanation by the doctor but doesn’t fully understand and tells her dad to be careful so he doesn’t ‘break [Sal’s] brains more’. That said, I was thrown quite badly out of the story early on, when Sal’s mother behaved in a way I found hard to understand. On Sal’s first morning home, her mother, knowing Sal wouldn’t be able to dress herself in clothes with zips or buttons, which is all she’s ever had, tells her to get dressed by herself and leaves her to have a meltdown. After Sally has lost it completely, frightened and overwhelmed and feeling abandoned, her mother comes in and tells a story about how the family had christened her ‘Scarey Sarey’ when she was four and too scared to go into the lake. Only then is it revealed that her mother has got her new clothes that are easy to put on without the help she has always needed. So, set your kid up to feel overwhelmed and helpless and then mock her – if gently – and then show there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of, so she can learn the lesson about independence being within her grasp. Why not just tell her before making her feel so helpless? Similar things happen several times, with both parents acting very Mother/Father Knows Best, but actually being far less wise and teaching far less useful lessons than they’re supposedly doing.

The other, related problem I saw was the way the narrative handles the bullying that occurs in the story. The mysterious Piet actually hits kids much younger than himself, including Sally’s brother Kent, but that’s glossed over. When Kent bursts out, ‘I don’t care, he doesn’t have to pick on kids half his size!’ their father calls Kent‘s behaviour ‘babyish’, because he didn’t ‘think of the other person’s point of view’. What Sally experiences in school is also horrible, and it all happens under the eye of her kindly and wise teacher, who never does anything to stop it. In fact, his only action is to tell Sally – essentially – that she has to take it because Elsje had had ‘the saddest face’ a year ago, when she first came to the school. This is so many kinds of wrong. It’s wrong to give the lesson that compassion for someone who has had a hard time should make you accept whatever that person does. It’s wrong for a teacher to allow any child to be excluded and bullied, let alone a child with a disability who’s been dumped into a mainstream school for the first time in her life. And it’s so wrong that Elsje forces another child to behave in a way she knows is wrong, because things hadn’t been great for her in the past. This is quite a didactic book, and I felt the lesson imparted here was not the one it purported to teach: that kids should try to understand other people’s behaviour, no matter how unkind or unfair. Sally, who has a serious disability, can become an independent adult so it’s fair enough to chide her into expecting very little help with these terrifying new situations. On the other hand Elsje and Piet, who had arrived in Canada from Holland a year before, are treated as if this were a handicap from which they couldn’t recover, so shouldn’t be expected to behave decently. That wasn’t a lesson I found useful to anyone, no matter how positive the message about a disabled child’s being capable of becoming independent is in theory.

I mentioned the mental comparison that was going on with Binny during my potential bracket reads, and this was an instance of particularly clear contrast. The bullying Binny receives in her new school is upsetting, and the fact that no adults step in and smite the wrongdoers (in an appropriate manner, of course! I’m not looking for Dahl. Ever) makes it more upsetting. There is a real difference between the two instances of bullying, however, and the difference lies in the fact that the narrative excuses the bullying Sally receives, while it doesn’t excuse what happens to Binny at all. We’re so firmly in Binny’s head that we understand how she gets knocked, both literally and figuratively, senseless to the point that she doesn’t just apologise to Clare for ruining her presents for her mother. Binny is so miserable and full of dread about her new school that finding Clare there is the final straw and she can’t make it right then by apologising either. So Clare thinks she doesn’t care and Binny says the awful thing about Clare’s mother and Clare turns everyone against her and crucially, Binny decides not to tell her mother because she doesn’t want to worry her (more). No adults see, so nobody can stop the bullying, and it’s awful, because bullying is. But does that mean that only awful people are capable of bullying behaviour? No, and McKay does a wonderful, painful job of showing how it can happen without excusing the behaviour. Clare’s eventual acknowledgment of how badly she’d treated Binny is ultimately more satisfying than her being punished would have been.

In contrast to the new-to-me Mine for Keeps, the Penderwicks are old friends. I had the time, and miraculously happened to find the first three books (this is the second Battle with my books in boxes, and I am so ready to be living like a normal human being again, surrounded by my books!), so reread them before getting to my reread of Penderwicks in Spring. The things we do for Beth, right? It was almost as much fun as reading them for the first time, although seeing the chaos to come was, in places, more painful than when it happens with a degree more surprise. I was interested to see the subtle hints of Skye’s terrible misunderstanding about Batty’s role in their lives right from the beginning, although I’d missed them completely on the first read. And ‘Marianne doesn’t like flannel’ has now permanently gone on my mental list of all-time great lines. (It’s in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure.) I was tempted to keep up the old friends analogy, and talk about how you can love them dearly with all their flaws and imperfections, while seeing those clearly, but it’s probably a mistake. The flaw is something I didn’t spot at all while reading the book, utterly immersed in poor Batty’s misery, and desperately worried for her. It wasn’t until Stephanie Burgis pointed it out in her Goodreads review that I saw it, and I’m not pleased with myself about that. Birdsall gives us a superb depiction of a child’s inability to reason or question when hearing her sister say that she was unwanted, and the cause of their mother’s death. Whatever causes that vulnerability to self-blame, and indeed, to the combination of childish egocentricity and inappropriate taking of responsibility, some kids have it, and Batty is one. The problem, however, is that her father later says that Skye ‘needs to think about that too – how banning [Jeffrey] affects the rest of us.’ Later again, when Skye talks to Batty, she says she has to apologise ‘for making Jeffrey go away’. Unpack the heart-breaking scene at the centre of Batty’s crisis and you’ll discover it makes no sense at all. Skye insists she has to tell Jeffrey what happens ‘when people fall in love’, but what it actually is is what happens when a mother is pregnant and has cancer. This, of course, is utterly irrelevant to Jeffrey’s insistence on ‘talking love’ to Skye when she’s told him she doesn’t want him to. It’s a bit of authorial manipulation that is less noticeable because the consequences of the scene are depicted brilliantly. All the same, it does seem that a more logical reason for Skye to tell someone that she blames their mother’s death on Batty could have been found.

A family book like this is a slightly unusual thing; for all it’s ‘realist’ and indeed, sometimes painfully grounded in the harsh world in which mothers die of cancer and people are stalked and parents (or mothers) act with inexcusable selfishness, there’s a sense in which the world is slightly fantastic as well. (Melissa gets credit for saying this first, in our pre-Battle discussion!) This slight unreality is seen most obviously in the occasional whopping great coincidence (the next-door neighbor at the beach in Penderwicks at Point Mouette) or extreme convenience (Iantha’s turning up next door with an equally tragic, but baggage-free, loss of spouse, at just the right time for both to be ready for marriage #2) or just-too-perfect-to-be-true characters (Iantha. Also Martin, but really. Iantha). It’s also a world in which everyone is pretty extraordinary. Jane is destined to be a great writer; Skye will probably follow Iantha into astrophysics, if there’s nothing more rocket science for her than that; both Jeffrey and Batty are exceptional musicians. Even the dogs are extraordinary examples of canine perfection, and while Hound was much missed, weren’t Duchess and Cilantro fun? That’s fine and often delightful, but is a problem when a character who has been presented as just about perfect is supposed to be speaking wisdom and is very much not. In this case it’s Martin (the father), and while nobody could blame him for not catching Skye’s misunderstanding of the circumstances around Batty’s birth and her mother’s death, I do blame him for saying that Skye should have thought of the others before sending Jeffrey away. If Jeffrey doesn’t hold to his promise not to be pestering her with romantic talk, Skye has the right to send him away – or at very least to expect the father who wants her not to, to protect her from being pestered. The scene in which everyone is in the kitchen for Skye’s birthday and Iantha sorts them all out, including firmly telling Nick to stop teasing Rosalind about Oliver, makes a good contrast. (On the other hand, Oliver’s behaviour to two-year-old Lydia is quite horrible, and I’d have expected either Iantha or Martin to have looked at that more seriously.)

This strange way in which the family blames Skye for not thinking how the rest of them will miss Jeffrey instead of blaming Jeffrey for not keeping his promise (‘you’re so beautiful, you know’ is NOT an excuse for anything when the person doing the beauty has told you ‘no’, very clearly), recurs, though perhaps less problematically. Rosalind and Tommy’s break-up wasn’t as a result of Rosalind cheating or anything; in fact, she says that it was Tommy’s idea. But Jane says that they all miss Jeffrey and wish Skye would ‘do something’ with Rosalind chiming in that she simply can’t ‘make him stay away for ever’. Ben then says that Rosalind ‘made Tommy stay away forever’, which Skye agrees is true. If Tommy is incapable of remaining friends with the other Penderwicks after a non-acrimonious break-up, I’d say that was his fault, not Rosalind’s responsibility. I’d be happy enough to see Rosalind and Tommy end up together eventually (NOT ditto for Skye and Jeffrey), but it should be because they want to be together, not so the family can keep Tommy as honorary-brother: a status that Nick manages without a romantic pairing with a Penderwick girl, and why wouldn’t he?

This criticism is very much in the backhanded compliment camp: because I love the book so much, I mind a great deal when it veers off true. Certainly there was never any doubt which book I’d be putting forward. The Penderwicks in Spring is a wonderful, warm and deeply moving MG family book. It’s not perfect, and I really hope that the final book pulls back from some of the directions it has gone in, but I’m still awaiting that final book with great eagerness. If there’s another big jump in book-time, I’m expecting amazing things from Lydia. (First pre-teen translator for the United Nations? First teen president of the United Nations??) There’s sadness at the fact that it’s the end of the series, and yes, some unease, but whatever happens, it’s a series I love, and this is a book I love. Battle on, Oh Penderwicks!


Congratulations to The Penderwicks in Spring, which moves on to round 3!

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33 thoughts on “Round 2, Match 3: Mine for Keeps vs. The Penderwicks in Spring

  1. Woohoo! And thanks for giving me credit for my passing thought. If the Penderwicks live in a slightly fantastic/alternate universe, it’s one I’d feel comfortable in.

    1. A world where you never have to lock your doors – and where all your neighbors are wonderful, charming people who hand out $20 every day to walk their dogs – etc. WHEN CAN I MOVE IN, basically.

  2. You’re welcome! It was a very helpful passing thought! I think I read these books too much as a parent to feel very comfortable in their universe, though. 🙂

  3. This is so many kinds of wrong. It’s wrong to give the lesson that compassion for someone who has had a hard time should make you accept whatever that person does.

    And that you can’t complain about your problems because someone else has it worse! What a harmful thing to say, especially to a child.

    (And I think I’m going to have to re-read Binny. The lack of action re: the bullying in that one bugged me, but you’re right! The adults didn’t know!)

    And the Jeffrey story bothered me as well. If Skye doesn’t want to be with him (or anyone), that’s it. Full stop. No justification needed.

    I did like both books a lot, though. 😀

    1. I absolutely agree with you – and yet as someone who did read this as a child, I didn’t read this that way at all! (You know when you read things when you’re young and they’re so – entrenched, I guess – in your consciousness that it’s hard to wrap your brain around another reading? I can see Hallie’s reading so clearly now that she pointed it out, but it was still surprising for me!) Anyway, what I meant to say was that I saw it as Sal learning to recognize that other people have a hard time, not just her – which I liked a lot, because it showed she wasn’t deficient just because she had CP.

      Which is probably a backwards way of reading this, but: brought to you by my eleven-year-old brain.

      1. That’s good to know, though! I mean, we’ve talked before about how we’re adults reacting to various issues in stories and who knows what the kids actually think!

        I think it might’ve taken it in the harmful way as a kid, though.

      2. Sorry – I just didn’t get a minute to sit down and reply ALL DAY. I’m not sure there is a backwards reading (unless you were saying that the book’s message is that kids with disabilities can never do anything, I guess), and you certainly read it the way the author intended it to be read, going on what she said about it. It is weird though, having a clear memory of your childhood reading and a very different one sloshing around in your brain together. I tried to read Mary Poppins to my kids when they were young, and I could feel the magic with every part of me and yet also was seeing how they were finding it very unpleasant.

        1. YES. It is strange! But I hope I never lose it, because at least I do have some memory of reading specifically as a kid? Which a lot of adults seem not to (coughPrintz committeecough)

          And awwwww, I adored Mary Poppins, and I adored the Broadway musical because instead of just adapting the movie, they read the books! It was THRILLING.

      3. Yeah, me too. I read it as a child of 10 or so, more or less at the time it was published, and the mother came across to me then as wise and reasonable (and I had a keenly developed sense of injustice even then). The thing with the clothes was Sal getting upset about something before she’d even tried it, and indeed making a huge fuss about nothing. But I can see how Hallie, as a parent, would respond the way she did.

  4. And that you can’t complain about your problems because someone else has it worse! What a harmful thing to say, especially to a child.

    Oh, yes, Katie – that’s a great way of putting it too, and so harmful, as you say.

    (And I think I’m going to have to re-read Binny. The lack of action re: the bullying in that one bugged me, but you’re right! The adults didn’t know!)

    If you do reread Binny, I think it would be very interesting to look at the parallels between the horrors of Peter and Rupert’s school and what Binny goes through. It wasn’t my book, so I didn’t want to take too much time talking about it, but I’m going to reread soon and look out for this. Back in the early story, the adults DO know and just seem to accept that the rigours of a school like that will ‘toughen you up’ – ‘make a man of you’ – but kids are jumping off trains and (ready to jump) out of windows to get away from it! As well as just running away, to another country. (Which one?!)

    You know what I’d love for the final Penderwicks book? For Skye to identify as asexual. Or just to say cheerfully that she’s never been interested in romance and isn’t now. (MG book version.)

    So many great books in the Battle! 🙂

    1. Oooh, that’s a really good point about the bullying in the older story!

      I did read Skye as asexual . . . in that cautious kind of way where I’m very unsure if the story will really go there!

      1. I read Skye as asexual too, at least for the stage of life she was in. Didn’t want to make any assumptions about her in general. But it would be interesting for the story to go there, in any sense.

        1. No, no assumptions here either. It’s odd because I saw that you’d both replied this way and started worrying about how it could sound as if I were suggesting she had to be asexual because she wasn’t romantically interested in Jeffrey and why not unless there was a Big Reason. That’s like the surface fat-positive books that some people think are great because the fat character has a Big Reason for being fat. It’s not that, of course! It would just be lovely to see some more characters who are asexual without it being any kind of big deal.

          1. I’m on a tangent now, but I KNOW, RIGHT? I’ll read books and start identifying with a character–and for me, it’s often things like loneliness, to put it briefly–and then it’ll turn out the characters is only that way because Big Reason. Which makes me feel worse about myself like there must be something REALLY wrong with me if I have X problem for no reason!!!

  5. It’s rather fascinating to see how things have changed regarding disabled kids in public schools

    You know, you need to read Light A Single Candle! You’ll find that fascinating, too.

    That wasn’t a lesson I found useful to anyone, no matter how positive the message about a disabled child’s being capable of becoming independent is in theory.

    …Clearly I should finish (re)reading your piece before responding to comments!

    a status that Nick manages without a romantic pairing with a Penderwick girl, and why wouldn’t he?

    NICK IS PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY.

    1. I will put Light a Single Candle on my ridiculously long to-read list!

      NICK. Yes. And more seriously, yes, I think he’s one of the better characters because he screws up and knows he’s screwed up and it’s totally understandable.

  6. Terrific write-up, Hallie – although I have to admit to have not read either book (or any of the Penderwicks at all) yet. Your comments about the didactic nature of’Mine for Keeps’ kind of intersect with some thinking I’ve been doing lately about didacticism in fiction in general and the potential issues it can bring up for readers. There’s the way the reader feels about the message itself – is the reader find it preachy or subtle? Does the reader agree personally with the message itself? And then there’s the isssue of whether it works in the novel – not only whether it’s integrated into the book or if it’s imposed on it, but whether its message is consistence with what the author purports to say, as you point out here. Anyway, just thinking aloud! I must catch up with The Penderwicks at some point.

    1. Interesting, Ros,, and thanks! I do think you might enjoy the Penderwicks, especially because of all the nods to kids’ books, both classical and recent. Actually, what you said about didacticism made me think – for no good reason – of Hilary McKay’s Wishing for Tomorrow. (It’s a sequel to A Little Princess, which I would not have read had it been written by anyone else!) It’s absolutely un-messagey, but manages to shift the perspective to make you absolutely root for the horrible Lavinia and even have some sympathy for Miss Minchin. Brilliant to manage to pull that off, really.

  7. I thought Skye’s reasons for not being with Jeffrey were dumb, too. Falling in love was not the cause of Skye’s mother dying of cancer, I mean?! But yeah, she didn’t need a reason at all to not be with him. That said, my parents did mention being sad about having to cut ties with their children’s ex-partners, so it does affect the rest of the family, but the “main” relationship should still have priority here, obviously.

    1. …but the “main” relationship should still have priority here, obviously.

      Oh yes. And because they’re only 17 (I think? Maybe Skye’s birthday is her 18th?) at the time! Also. she didn’t need a reason at all to not be with him Yes to the power of infinity.

  8. Sorry – I’m coming late to this discussion! Hallie, I knew that was the choice you would make, and even pretty much guessed why. And I agree that the Penderwicks are X degree better than Mine For Keeps, even though I have a sentimental attachment to it. I ADORE the Penderwicks. Now, what I’d like to see is head-to-head Penderwicks vs Cassons. Not individual books: the series. And I know which one I’d pick (and you might even be able to guess, maybe the same one you would).

        1. ME TOO. And I actually have reasons and all. 🙂

          What a great idea for a Battle, though – paired series that have been chosen because they’re doing similar things! Wait. Did I hear Beth collapsing onto the floor from here‽‽‽ (I hope WordPress likes interrobangs as much as I do!)

          1. I would also choose the Cassons! But for the vague and inexplicable reason that it just connected with me more. It is probably the more flawed series, but it got further into my cold, cold heart.

    1. Debbie, you have NO reason to apologise! I don’t think I even got to reply to your write up, though I read it and loved it! Just this morning there have been TWO crises concerning my mother (one real about which she doesn’t even know, one totally fabricated) and the time before I head off to see Dorian is disappearing! (DWJ Dorian, that is.) I had time to sit down and read everything and reply and think (and ramble), and now I don’t and it’s super annoying.

      I like being known, which is how I choose to see it rather than being boringly predictable! 🙂 Funnily enough, I actually had included a couple of lines about how I’d have chosen in a match between Binny and PiS. But I thought that was pushing it, as I was kind of taking advantage of Beth’s good nature already in discussing a book I didn’t even have.

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