Birdsall, Jeanne 1952(?)–
Birdsall, Jeanne 1952(?)–
PERSONAL: Born c. 1952; married Bill Diehl (a teacher), 1994; children: two stepchildren. Education: Attended Boston University, 1969, and California College of Arts and Crafts, 1972.
ADDRESSES: Home—Northampton, MA. Agent—Barbara S. Kouts Literary Agency, P.O. Box 560, Bell-port, NY 11713.
CAREER: Photographer and children's book author. Also works as a technical writer. Exhibitions: Photographs exhibited at R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton, MA, and in permanent collections of Smithsonian Institution and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
AWARDS, HONORS: Booklist Top Ten First Novels for Youth inclusion, School Library Journal Best Books designation, and National Book Award for Young People's Literature, all 2005, all for The Penderwicks.
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: The Penderwicks was adapted as an audiobook, Listening Library, 2006.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A sequel to The Penderwicks.
SIDELIGHTS: Inspired by the classic fantasy novels of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, Jeanne Birdsall's 2005 book The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy was described as "so retro, it's almost radical" by School Library Journal interviewer Rick Margolis. The novel surprised many—including its author—when it earned first-time writer Birdsall the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2005.
Growing up in Stratford, Pennsylvania, Birdsall had a childhood that was scarred by alcoholism, and reading quickly became a way for her to escape into another world. Her love of children's fantasy has stayed with her throughout her life, although in more recent years she has added Anthony Trollope, the Brontës, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Sayers, and other British writers to her list of favorites. Although in her primary career she has excelled at the visual arts and has become well known for her art photography, at age forty-two she decided to fulfill a childhood goal, and channel some creative energy into writing a book that carried on the legacy of Nesbit and Eager. The Penderwicks was the result.
Birdsall begins by introducing the Penderwick sisters: twelve-year-old Rosalind, eleven-year-old Skye, ten-year-old Jane, and four-year-old Batty. The widowed Mr. Penderwick—a loving but rather absentminded botany professor—take his daughters and the family dog to a cozy, rented cottage on a country estate called Arundel Hall. With few children living nearby, the girls soon befriend Jeffrey, the lonely son of the hall's upper-crusty owner, Mrs. Tifton. As the summer passes, the children encounter a series of adventures. Jeffrey's doom—to be sent to a dreaded military school—is something to be liberated from, while the usually dependable Rosalind suddenly finds herself doe-eyed over the hall's handsome young gardener. Feisty Skye fights the restrictions placed on the children by the snooty Mrs. Tifton, while Jane narrates the children's activities with a wry yet humorously melodramatic eye.
Praise for The Penderwicks was wide-ranging. Many critics acknowledged Birdsall's nod to other famous writers from Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett to Elizabeth Enright and Lemony Snicket. "Nostalgic but never stale, this fresh, satisfying novel is like a cool breeze on a summer's day," concluded Horn Book contributor Carolyn Shute. She describes The Penderwicks as "suffused with affectionate humor." In her "timeless tale," Birdsall captures "spirited family dynamics and repartee," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly, adding that the Penderwick sisters exhibit "delightfully diverse personalities" that "propel the plot." Praising the author's "superb writing style," B. Allison Gray wrote in School Library Journal that Birdsall's "wonderful, humorous book … features characters whom readers will immediately love," characters who engage in what a Kirkus Reviews writer described as "the sorts of lively plots and pastoral pastimes we don't read much about these days."
As critics quickly perceived, her writing openly pays homage to the books she loved as a child: escapist fiction featuring a band of curious children, a daunting challenge, and an everyday world that is transformed by the imagination into a place rife with the possibility of adventure. When she first approached publishers, she was advised to add a strong dose of adolescent strife, and make her story reflect what publishers maintained is demanded by modern readers weaned on so-called "problem novels." Ultimately, her manuscript fell into the hands of a more open-minded editor at Knopf, and The Penderwicks was published with only relatively minor changes. As Birdsall explained to Rick Margolis in School Library Journal, "People are saying children who lead traumatic lives need books that validate the trauma, and I'm not saying they're wrong. But I also think because it worked so well for me, that there are children who lead difficult lives who need to understand that it doesn't have to be so bad. I also think that there are a lot of children out there who are still leading wonderful lives, and … they need to have something to read too."
Working on a sequel to her award-winning novel, Birdsall makes her home in Western Massachusetts, together with her husband and assorted cats, rabbits, a dog, and even a snail. As she remarked of writing in an interview on her home page: "Most authors do work very hard. I know that I do, partly because I write slowly, so I have to write almost every day to make any progress at all. But mostly I work hard because I'm happiest when I'm writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 2005, Timnah Card, review of The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, p. 9.
Horn Book, July-August, 2005, Carolyn Shute, review of The Penderwicks, p. 465.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2005, review of The Penderwicks, p. 633.
Publishers Weekly, July 25, 2005, review of The Penderwicks, p. 77.
School Library Journal, July, 2005, B. Allison Gray, review of The Penderwicks, p. 95; January, 2006, Rick Margolis, "Seems Like Old Times" (interview), p. 60.
Boston Globe Online, http://www.boston.com/ (December 12, 2005), David Mehegan, "A Storybook Beginning."
Jeanne Birdsall Home Page, http://www.jeannebirdsall.com (April 26, 2006).
R. Michelson Galleries Web site, http://www.rmichelson.com/ (April 26, 2006), "Jeanne Birdsall."