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!