12 February 2009

Penderwicks Under the Influence

Page 1 of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: “‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”

Page 1 of Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: “...what is summer without a trip to somewhere special?”

And thus begins the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who live with their mother--or rather the story of Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, along with their father.

They meet a delightful and rich boy next door, Laurie Jeffrey, and deal with the difficulties of being so poor that they can only have a large warm house and lots of books and clothes but not a huge house with loyal servants like Laurie Jeffrey.

As you might guess, I found it impossible not to think of Alcott's March sisters when reading The Penderwicks. The oldest of the four girls is loving, responsible Rosalind instead of loving, responsible Meg. At bottom is baby Batty, who dreams of marrying the boy next door, instead of Amy, who eventually does. In the middle, noble dying Beth isn't an acceptable role model in today's culture, so there's no equivalent to her. Instead, Jo has been split into two sisters: Skye gets the spit-in-their-eye spunk, and Jane gets the novelistic ambitions.

Of course, Birdsall hasn't been shy about acknowledging her influences. The book itself name-checks Alcott, Patricia MacLachlan, E. Nesbit's Bastables, Edward Eager, and a certain tornado in Kansas. The author went further in this interview with Little Willow:

When I was 10 or so, I learned that Edward Eager wrote his wonderful set of books (Half Magic, Knight's Castle, Magic by the Lake, etc.) partly in tribute to the great E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers, etc.). Since I loved these authors, I vowed that, when I grew up, I would try to write books that would be tributes to both of them. And though I didn't start writing until I was very grown up (in my 40s), I did go back to Eager and Nesbit for inspiration, with a lot of Louisa May Alcott and some Frances Hodgson Burnett thrown in, plus a bunch of others.
On her website Birdsall says:
I also borrow from other books, especially the ones I loved best when I was young. The idea of four sisters came from Little Women. Batty’s adventure with the bull came from Emily of New Moon. There are other examples, but that would be giving too much away!
Paradoxically, that would be giving away what the book has already borrowed.

Reviewers noted the many influences on The Penderwicks. Some asked whether the book holds more appeal for adults who recall reading those books than for kids. For example, here's the Common Sense review:
it's a book calculated to warm the hearts of aging Boomers, and remind them of the books they read when they were kids. Whether it will warm the hearts of many of today's children remains to be seen. It will be loved by the kind of kids, if there are any left, who go into a trance over Little Women, The Moffats, and others...
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Birdsall herself said: “the independents had really gotten behind it. It was a book they could hand to every adult who walked in, needing a book for a child.” And of course it won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The Penderwicks struck me as the literary equivalent of a Freddie Bartholomew movie, beloved of aunts everywhere. Of course, some young readers enjoy it very much as well. But many of its most enthusiastic fans seem to be those adults, "needing a book for a child" that reminded them of the books they remembered from childhood.

In particular, I wonder how The Penderwicks got such a buoyant critical reception when other books have been criticized for borrowing too much. I Googled the words "derivative" and "Eragon" and came up with 23,200 hits; in fact, there are 200 hits for "Eragon" and "hopelessly derivative" alone. Yet when I Googled "derivative" and "Penderwicks," I found just over 100 webpages.

Is that difference because Birdsall was transparent about her influences, thus making The Penderwicks an homage rather than an imitation? Because her prose style is quite good? Because she personally didn't seem so callow as teen-aged author Christopher Paolini? Because he had more sales and a movie deal, and thus became a larger target? Or because Birdsall chose to replicate what's perceived as a higher class of literature, particularly beloved for children's-book reviewers?


Sam said...

So to recap:
Alcott tribute wins the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Wanda Gag tribute wins the Caldecott

And a book inspired by Kipling wins the Newbery

Would it be wrong of me to say that the awards are kicking it old school?

Mordena said...

The most obvious source to me was Elizabeth Enright's Melendy books, which many kids I know (and I)still adore. And one could do much worse than to try to recreate that mood of everyday life being an adventure. I felt The Penderwicks was trying a little too hard to be an Elizabeth Enright book, which is why it wasn't one. (Though it may also have had something to do with the lack of WWII as background)

J. L. Bell said...

The Penderwicks got its National Book Award in 2005, so I don’t think we can put it in a trend with this year’s Newbery and Caldecott winners (which I think you’re referring to, Sam).

All literature and art looks backward as well as forward, to some extent. I wonder if children’s literature is more backward-looking (since so many writers are inspired by their own childhoods) or more forward-looking (since young readers can’t be nostalgic for times they’ve never experienced).

J. L. Bell said...

Many folks have mentioned Enright’s Melendy books as another forerunner of The Penderwicks. I’ve read only one of those books, and such a long time ago that I didn’t feel confident making a comparison.

I’d be interested in seeing who Enright’s influences and models were. Was she like Edward Eager, a middle link in the influence chain?

Folks have also mentioned Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and even The Happy Hollisters series as similar to The Penderwicks.

Gail Gauthier said...

I have to admit that I've wondered how much kids like this book. I enjoyed the Alcott influences, though I didn't get any of the others because I didn't read the other authors when I was young.

Sam said...

2005? That ruins a perfectly good conspiracy theory.

I certainly can't complain about anyone "taking inspiration." I even tried to use it as a selling point by naming my book The Qwikpick Papers.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve come to think originality is overrated, myself. I blame the Romantics and their critical followers. But I’ll get into that more when I have an Alan Moore Week.

Anonymous said...

And for the Oz connection of Elizabeth Enright, she was the daughter of Maginel Wright Enright, who illustrated L. Frank Baum's Twinkle and Chubbins and Policeman Bluejay.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking hard about literary influences on Elizabeth Enright. One certainly couldn't put her in the same class with Edward Eager--though I love his books, they're obviously derivative (which he talks about openly, of course). There's been nothing I can think of offhand that's an obvious, undeniable influence on Enright's books, but one that did come to mind is Dandelion Cottage. Five Little Peppers too, maybe. Her books are, at their heart, about children who DO things with minimal interference/assistance from adults, so any earlier book with that theme could be said to have some relationship. But I think her books are very fresh, creative, and original.

I don't think the Google experiment with Penderwicks vs. Eragon really works; Eragon has had many more readers, and fantasy readers--dare I say--probably care more. I haven't read Eragon, myself, but from what I understand, it's really quite a bit more derivative than Penderwicks--which, except maybe for the scene with Batty and the bull, is more a reworking of themes and images into something new(ish) than Eragon is.

Mostly I think it's about the fact that, as you say, Penderwicks is better-written than Eragon. I don't know that it replicates a "higher class of literature"; isn't Eragon a Tolkein takeoff? I think almost everyone, even those who aren't interested in fantasy, would acknowledge that Tolkein is a class above Alcott. (Speaking of which, I was struck so immediately by the Eager similarities in Penderwicks that the Alcott connection never occurred to me once.)

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read more than a few pages of Eragon myself, so I can't judge whether it's more or less derivative than Penderwicks. But plainly each is "a reworking of themes and images" from previous books. One has been widely criticized for being so reminiscent of previous books while the other is often praised for the same quality.

It might indeed be true that "fantasy readers...probably care more" than Penderwicks's core readers, but we're still left with the question of why. Are there so few books like The Penderwicks published today that people are eager for anything new they can get? Or are those readers less worried about originality?

Speaking of which, I was struck so immediately by the Eager similarities in Penderwicks that the Alcott connection never occurred to me once.

I associate Eager so strongly with mild fantasy that I didn't see much of his influence on the Penderwicks version of realism. But Birdsall has definitely cited him as a favorite.

Anonymous said...

I think my implication about fantasy readers was maybe too subtle, because I was trying hard not to offend anyone, and I don't mean this offensively; I think people who are really into fantasy novels are much more obsessive about their interest, and I'm pretty well entrenched in the world of old-children's-books-fans. (And actually, I would say that most people I know couldn't care less whether old-fashioned books are being published now and are content reading and rereading old favorites, as well as discovering new-to-them old books.) But then, it seems like I've heard a lot more criticism of Penderwicks than you have--I know many who enjoyed it in a mild sort of way, but few people in that circle seem to mention it without including something like "but I'd rather just reread [personal favorite similar to Penderwicks] again" or "basically Melendy fanfic".

And what I'm also getting at is that it seems like Eragon is a much more direct derivation, verging on plagiarism, than Penderwicks is--based on responses I've heard. Penderwicks is "reminiscent of"; Eragon is "derivative of".

J. L. Bell said...

Oh, I don't think you need to worry about offending fantasy fans, especially since what you're pointing out (a sharp eye for similarities, caring about originalities) can be seen as strengths rather than failings.

I think we're still lacking an objective comparison of how derivative or reminiscent either Penderwicks or Eragon is, not least because neither of us have read the latter through. What we have are subjective judgments, but we're discussing whether the judgments of one set of readers are more critical than those of another, which means those judgments can't be measured on the same scale.

How derivative was young Paolini's novel of Tolkien? In Eragon the hero's on the side of dragons; in Tolkien, the dragons are always antagonistic. Tolkien's most famous books revolve around a magic ring (like one of his obvious influences, Wagner's Ring cycle). Paolini left out such a talisman. So it's not like he was doing a rewrite. It looks more like Paolini was writing within a genre, unaware of its clichés.

Birdsall was also writing within a genre, apparently well aware of many of its clichés or common motifs. That may have insulated her from some criticism.

But perhaps it's just a matter of language—that fans of high fantasy are more apt to use terms like "derivative" or "hopelessly derivative" than fans of old-fashioned children's books. And the latter might be more likely to use words like "reminiscent," which has no poor connotations, or to recommend other volumes without denigrating the one at hand. To the obsessed high-fantasy fan, that approach might seem like mincing around the question of (as at least one online essayist put it) "plagerism."