Illustration by Hans Fischer (1959): Pitschi
It was British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones who said she would much rather write for children. Because she didn’t have to explain things to them as she did with adults (editors, etc.). Jones was not trying to imply that children were credulous, but rather that they were sophisticated readers. Children could make imaginative leaps that many adults had forgotten how to do.
In late March 2015, the long-awaited fourth book in the Penderwicks series was finally released. I devoured it almost in one sitting. Like Jones, Jane Birdsall is an author who assumes the sophistication of her child readers. Penderwicks in Spring doesn’t land feet first in the middle of the action, as is the fashion today. But along with strains of gentle humor, there is a haunting pathos that runs through the book like a forgotten song. It compels the reader’s attention.
Birdsall opens her fourth book some years later, as 11-year old Batty wrestles with self-recriminations over the natural loss of her dog, Hound–Hound whom readers have come to love almost as deeply as Batty does. As the book unfolds, Batty’s guilt over Hound’s death gives way to an incomprehensible pain, when she learns from one sister of the role she played in their mother’s death. Throughout the book we find young Batty wrestling with huge conflicts—conflicts of a Job-like magnitude.
As with any good work of art, Penderwicks in Spring stayed with me—It resonated so deeply that I felt almost as depressed as poor Batty did, hiding wretchedly in her closet, unable to face the world or her family. I worried that this likeable character might not pull through in the end.
In addition to creating believable characters and endearingly funny scenes, Birdsall is a true master of human pathos. The brilliance of the Penderwicks series, is that in all four books at least one or more characters must navigate soul-wrenching growing pains. Given the sophistication and depth of young readers, it’s a skill well-worth developing for any children’s book author.