Why I Love the Penderwicks

How to Tutor blog reader (and mother of four), Sarah Lake, sent me this comment:

I really love the way that you encourage parents to capitalize on teachable moments. I have spent years thinking that teaching my kids needs to be a formal affair, but that’s far from true!  Such a nice reminder, as much of our education comes simply from life experience.

She pinpointed exactly what I’m trying to do on my blog and in my book.  While learning certainly can happen more formally–and often to good effect–I’m also in favor of building on life’s many organic teachable moments.  These exchanges look less like workbooks, flash cards, and vocabulary lists and more like natural communication and experience.

I thought about this method of learning as I read Jeanne Birdsall‘s The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, the sequel to Birdsall’s 2005 National Book Award for Young People winner, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.  (There’s also a third book in the series.)

Birdsall’s sequel was one of the best children’s books I’d read in a long time.  It features a widowed father and his four daughters, ages four to thirteen, who institute the “Save-Daddy Plan” and attempt to sabotage their father’s return to the dating world.  The perspective shifts from daughter to daughter between sections, engaging the reader in secondary plots about Aztec-themed school plays, a mysterious “Bug Man” in the neighborhood, and the lovely astrophysicist who moves in next door with her baby boy.

Much as children can read the Percy Jackson series to get enthused about Greek mythology, Birdsall so naturally weaves educational references into The Penderwicks on Gardam Street that readers will come away eager to explore new subjects:

  • Literature.  You’d finish any Penderwicks book with a reading list.  In one scene, daughter Jane tries to summon C. S. Lewis’s Aslan, E. Nesbit’s Psammead, and Edward Eager’s wish-granting turtle.
  • Latin.  Mr. Penderwick throws sarcastic Latin phrases into his daily speech.  “Cruciatus,” he says upon returning from a particularly torturous date.   His daughters are eager to figure out what he’s saying and use dictionaries (yes, physical dictionaries–not the Internet) to do so.  In most cases, there’s just enough of a gap between his statements and their comprehension of meaning to allow the reader to puzzle it out first, considering word roots and context.  The characters’ enthusiasm for foreign languages is contagious.
  • Poetry.  Rosalind must memorize a Shakespearean sonnet for English class: “No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change….”
  • Astronomy.  The aptly named Skye admires the neighbor’s knowledge of astrophysics: “Terms swirled around her–‘ether,’ and ‘void,’ and ‘flux and flow,’ and ‘whirling gases,’ and ‘Big Bang,’ and always this ‘dark matter’ thing, a theory of what filled the vast regions between stars.”

Jane writes novels about the fictional Sabrina Starr, Skye performs in a play about Aztec sacrifices, and even little Batty provides academic inspiration as she and neighbor Iantha document the progression of interactions between the Penderwicks‘ dog, Hound, and Iantha’s cat, Asimov.

As an added perk, the children in Birdsall’s books consistently model the value of friendly interactions between people of different ages.  Small children and teenagers and adults mix freely and positively, and all learn from each other naturally, as will these books’ readers

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