The Dogs of the Story: Jeanne Birdsall on The Penderwicks

Seira Wilson on May 21, 2018

PenderwicksAtLast225.jpgIn 2005 Jeanne Birdsall's book about a quirky, lovable, family was published, and The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy went on to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.  This month, 13 years after we met the Penderwicks for the first time, Birdsall published the final book in the series, The Penderwicks at Last

With each book we've grown to love her characters more and more, and while it's hard to say goodbye, these are stories that will be enjoyed by future generations and remembered as favorite books of childhood.  Like many families, dogs have also been a part of the Penderwicks' story, and in the exclusive piece below Birdsall writes about the dogs in her life and in the lives of her characters. 

*The Penderwicks at Last is a May editors' pick for the Best Kids' Books of the Month

The Penderwick Dogs by Jeanne Birdsall

Growing up, I had just one dog, a Dalmatian named Laddie, and he didn’t get to stick around very long. Something about him being the largest Dalmatian ever—baby elephant–sized, or so I remember—plus his habit of biting into cans of food, then smearing the contents across our kitchen floor, convinced my parents he should be sent to a different home, one with plenty of room to run and, they hoped, no cans of food.

Losing Laddie made me sad. The goldfish I won at the local Fourth of July celebration didn’t help. You can’t take a goldfish on walks, and anyway, I soon found the poor thing floating in his fishbowl. How I sobbed! And then the guppies—more sadness, maybe even hysteria. A 1950s childhood had many curses—like ubiquitous canned food, even when it wasn’t smeared on the floor—but guppies were way up there for horror. No one had warned me that mother guppies eat their young. Finding out as it happened scarred me for life.

So when I began writing about the Penderwick family, it was natural for me not to give them fish as pets. Instead, they got a dog who would never, ever be sent away. This was Hound, a large, black, mixed-breed goofball, named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hound of the Baskervilles. This was Mr. Penderwick’s joke. He knew Hound would never grow up to be a demon dog. And indeed he was sweet, kind, and loyal, especially to Batty, whom he met when she was a newborn just home from the hospital. He decided she was more puppy than human, and spent the next decade watching and fussing over her. No girl could have had a better friend than Hound.

Fourteen years ago, my husband and I brought a real dog into our lives, a Boston terrier named Cagney. (He was named for the Arundel gardener, rather than the other way around.) Cagney has, shall we say, a lot of personality, bringing us joy and chaos in equal measure, and compelling me to find him a place in the Penderwick saga. This was the genesis of Hoover, introduced in the third book. I named him after a vacuum cleaner because Cagney—again, the dog, not the gardener—has the habit of shoving his nose across the floor, snorting and snuffling while he sucks up crumbs and other food-based detritus.

Hoover opened the floodgates for dogs. In the fourth book, Batty inadvertently starts a neighborhood dog-walking business with Duchess, so plump she has to be pulled around in a red wagon, and shy Cilantro, who would have hidden under Duchess’s red wagon if it hadn’t been so low to the ground. The fifth book contains so many dogs that I hope the reader can keep them all straight. There are Feldspar and Sonata, Slapshot, Dyson (another vacuum cleaner!), Blakey, and a three-legged Great Dane named Hitch. Hitch was intended as a minor character, but he was too noble to be kept in the shadows—and ended up on the book jacket.

The Penderwicks at Last is the final book about this family. Their list of dogs is complete. But I’m not done writing, and a new dog has wriggled his way into my next story. His name is Wallace, and . . . you’ll have to wait for the rest.

Jeanne Birdsall and her dog


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