Literary Guide for Jeanne Birdsall’s “The Penderwicks”
by Jeanne Birdsall
Our first chapter book featured in this series, The Penderwicks – which takes place in the Berkshires – is a fantastic family summer read. Featuring a quirky cast of characters, a bit of mystery, and a healthy does of adventure and mystery, Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks is a story that can appeal to readers of all ages. While the accompanying literary guide is designed for use with 5th grade students (ages 10 and 11), the story is appropriate for young elementary students (though they may need some support with comprehension), yet can be enjoyed by tweens, teens, and adults – especially when done as a family read-aloud.
Centered around a family whose name titles a book, the story begins when the four Penderwick daughters and their eccentric father begin their vacation at a cottage in a fictional Berkshire community. Landing in the Berkshires due to a booking mishap as their usual Cape Cod rental, the family feels out of place but the children are eager to explore. The girls quickly discover that the owner of the cottage’s neighboring mansion is convinced that they are up to no good, and also discover – just as quickly – that the owner’s son has the potential to become a great new friend.
Recipient of numerous awards both in the United States and abroad, The Penderwicks provides families with a quirky and intriguing tale. Children on summer vacation from school will immediately identify with the characters in the book, as the story revolves around the four girls’ own summer vacation. While we can’t all slip away to a Berkshire cottage for endless adventures, we can enjoy such an adventure vicariously through the pages of a book!
The literature guide provides numerous suggestions for critical thinking questions to discuss after reading each chapter (over 50 in total for the book’s 18 chapters), allowing families to easily dissect, decipher, and discuss the story’s mysteries and subtleties. Engaging children in in-depth discussion about a story can not only provide them with an outlet for sharing their thinking, but it can help them to learn to assess the story from the perspective of others, and may encourage them to dig deeper into the story to look for symbolism, detail, or other small (yet very important) bits of information that they originally had passed over.
Additionally, the story provides ample opportunity for readers (and read-aloud listeners) to practice activating schema, making inferences, and using mental imagery in order to understand and connect to the story. Activities outlined in the guide provide suggestions for leading discussions – or even structured activities – with children in which they are encouraged to practice all of these skills. Families can utilize the guide for support in connecting schema and textual evidence in order to make inferences within the story, and can also find resources for sharing the images conjured by Birdsall’s descriptions and instances in which personification takes place in the story and the role that it plays in the plot. Overall, a close read of The Penderwicks can provide not only a few days of an exciting seasonal tale, but also ample opportunity to strengthen children’s skills in comprehending and interpreting.