Judged by Kris • Find her on Goodreads
I feel a bit like Goldilocks, wandering into the midst of this battle to try and make a decision which book I’m going to steal forever.
Jellicoe Road tells the story of Taylor Markham, a girl mostly alone in the world. Her mother is an enigma, having abandoned Taylor at a 7-11 at the Jellicoe Road when she was only a girl. It’s artistic and atmospheric; a book to be savored because of its craft.
The Penderwicks in Spring captures the further adventures of the Penderwick family, centering around the spring of nearly 10 year old Batty and her younger brother Ben as their lives move unheedingly into the future. It’s a book of parallels: both sweet and sad, simplistic and complex. It’s a book taken in big bites, easy to swallow.
Both were compelling, emotional reads. Both involve the painful reality of truth and how its revelations can shape and change a world.
Except: Jellicoe Road is too messy.
And: The Penderwicks in Spring is too neat.
To be fully transparent in the forthcoming rambling: I had read Jellicoe Road before. I had enjoyed it superficially and then set it aside. I also did not read any of the first 3 Penderwick books to prepare for this battle.
If we step back from Jellicoe Road, it’s easy to see some of the holes that left it messy. Where are the adults? How convenient is it that all three of the children who survived the car wreck on Jellicoe Road end up at the same state school so near to where the wreck took place? Why does no one take Webb’s disappearance seriously? What is up with Jude, seriously?
Are we truly supposed to find no issue with Hannah willingly agreeing to distance herself from an emotionally fragile 11 year old? Is the relationship between Taylor and Jonah supposed to seem stable and not slightly unhinged? (The text even acknowledges this! Taylor labels her relationship with Jonah as “intense” several times, and has her eager to see him gone “[b]ecause I need to know that I can still breathe properly when he’s not around. If something happens to him, I have to know that I won’t fall apart […]”. Which—don’t misunderstand—is probably the healthiest gorramned thing Taylor does the entire book, but it really highlighted the unhealthiness of THE ENTIRE REST OF THEIR INTERACTIONS.)
(PS: Having a boy tell you that you saved his life when you interrupted his suicide attempt doesn’t feel romantic to this cynic. SORRY TAYLOR PLEASE TAKE YOUR TEENAGE ANGST STORM ELSEWHERE.)
Ultimately, it felt like the core of Jellicoe Road is exceedingly flawed, but when you’re immersed in the story, the accessories are engaging: it has lovely prose, humor, that artistic flare that makes it feel like a Big Story.
Meanwhile, The Penderwicks in Spring is just… tidy. There’s a rambunctious family made up of two smaller family units and everyone loves one another. Everyone is super good at the things they like to do and there are no Lingering Issues. (There are Issues, but they are resolved with talking and hugs!!) There’s just… family, everywhere. So much family. It’s “after school special” neat—for the most part.
Of course I have complaints. In this metaphor I’m a pigtailed monster, yes?
Beyond the façade of the oh-so-happy family are glimpses of attitudes that are frightening. As previous judges have alluded to, Skye is told she must consider the feelings of her family before sending away her harasser. Rosalind’s split with her former S.O. is characterized in much the same way: the Wants of the Family outweigh the Wants of the One. It’s kind of a disconcerting thread, running under what otherwise is a happy-go-lucky family comedy.
Otherwise, the story revolves around Batty resolving a long-buried fear that roars to life when her sister drops some plot into the middle of an otherwise unrelated conversation. And the pain of that revelation is brutal and harsh, but well drawn, even though it’s resolved with talking and hugs!!
I found myself questioning the core plot points far less with The Penderwicks in Spring: I had issues with it, but none of them fully disengaged me from the text the way those in Jellicoe Road did. I didn’t throw it down in frustration because I was curious how the little-family-that-could would overcome the despondency of their oldest-of-the-youngest Penderwicks.
So with neither book being just right, how am I to choose?
I’m left with two books that, with additional scrutiny, begin to fall apart. Should Jellicoe Road and its grand webbed artistic nonsense win? It’s a beautiful story. But the moment I started asking any questions of it, I discovered that the veneer was the only thing that I liked. The heart of it—the story of an isolated, hurt girl finding her history and love on the Jellicoe Road—doesn’t quite land for me. There wasn’t enough substance behind the pretty words and grandiose metaphors.
And while The Penderwicks in Spring isn’t a perfect book, it felt far more like its flaws were accessories after the fact, rather than central to the plot. Should they be overlooked? No. But they matter less to the overall story, the story of Batty mourning her mother and her own role (or non-role) in her mother’s death. It’s a real enough pain that it withstands the other flaws of the story.
This year’s YA/MG battle winner is…
The Penderwicks in Spring.