The Penderwicks on Gardam Street
By Jeanne Birdsall
Knopf, 320 pp., ages 8-14, $15.99
What's Up, Duck?: A Book of Opposites
By Tad Hills
Schwartz & Wade, 22 pp., babies and toddlers, $6.99
By Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion, 304 pp., ages 13 and up, $16
Every author takes a risk when she moves her characters from one location to another. Jeanne Birdsall's first novel, "The Penderwicks," winner of the 2005 National Book Award, thrived in the sunny world of a New England mansion and its cottage fit for Penderwicks: four motherless girls and their Latin-spouting, botany-loving father. Here the Penderwicks settle back at home in the lively sequel, "The Penderwicks on Gardam Street," with school plays, neighborhood mysteries, and romances.
The four likable sisters once again distinguish themselves as separate characters - Rosalind, the confident, pretty older sister comes in for a rough ride, thanks to the new "Dating Plan" for her father. Skye tries to control her temper, conquer the soccer world, and survive her starring role in a play she's pretending to have written. Jane, the real playwright, must learn about true sacrifice, and littlest sister Batty is contending with a mysterious Bugman who may or may not exist.
"The Penderwicks" was, as the subtitle made clear, "A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy." "The Penderwicks on Gardam Street" rings autumnal from the get-go: It begins with a death, and leaps forward four years into "late September," which canters to "an early frost, and by Sunday morning, autumn had truly arrived. The sky was a rich cloudless blue, the air still and dry, the maple trees glowing." In addition to lovely prose, one may count on Birdsall for character and comedy. Adult readers will be quick to spot the true romances in this book, but the unfolding of the plot, the delight of that unfolding, and Birdsall's confident, lively writing are the keys to the series's ongoing success. One looks forward eagerly to the next season of Penderwicks.
A concept-teaching board book, "What's Up, Duck?: A Book of Opposites" is charming, funny, simple, and surprising. Not an easy accomplishment for a mere "book of opposites." Tad Hills works gesture and expression for all they're worth; he is master of the light comic touch. Babies and toddlers will delight in "What's Up, Duck?," and their grateful adult friends will find entertainment on every sturdy page.
"Trouble," a darkly beautiful novel by award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt, is gorgeously heartbreaking and interestingly flawed. I can't remember the last time I encountered finer prose; perhaps in the first "Harry Potter" books. Indeed, given the regal seaside setting, the long history suggested in its opening pages, I kept hoping for an element of the fantastic here. Schmidt - whose "The Wednesday Wars" and "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" were both Newbery Honor Books - could handle any amount of magic. But "Trouble" is here, as alas too often in life, entirely, grimly, powerfully realistic in its plot and intentions. Our hero Henry's hero - his athletic, bold older brother - is struck down by trouble when a car crashes into him, knocking him into an "indeterminate" and terrifying coma. Around that accident swirl the book's many subplots: the young Cambodian teenager driving the car; Henry's grieving, angry older sister; and a best friend who provides both ballast and necessary comic relief. "Trouble" is imperfect, like all novels; there are four or five plot twists too many. But it has important characteristics of great writing: dark comedy, brilliant landscape, prose that rolls over one like the pounding waves of Salvage Cove. There is no limit to what Schmidt may accomplish, given enough time and editing. I hope it may be an even braver, wilder, and more imaginatively complete world than "Trouble."
Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.