Author Birdsall Nets Award for 'The Penderwicks' Host Debbie Elliott talks with author Jeanne Birdsall, the winner of this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature, about her book, The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.

Author Birdsall Nets Award for 'The Penderwicks'

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A first-time novelist picked up this year's National Book Award for young people's literature. Jeanne Birdsall did not pick up a pen until the age of 41. Her book, "The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy," is the nostalgic story of four siblings on vacation in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. Joining us from WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, is Jeanne Birdsall.


Ms. JEANNE BIRDSALL ("The Penderwicks"): Thank you, Debbie. I'm thrilled to be here.

ELLIOTT: "The Penderwicks" is the story of these four girls. They're sisters who've lost their mother and they're in the care of their slightly absentminded father. They behave a lot like other children. They'll disobey. They'll get in fights, call each other names. What is it about the idea of this sibling relationship that appealed to you?

Ms. BIRDSALL: My own sibling relationship in my real life wasn't all that great and I was a little lonely. I was always reading these books about wonderful families where the children were close in age and very close, and I lived in those families to a great extent--all the families in the Edward Eager books, the families in the E. Nesbit books, of course, "Little Women." And so when I started to write my own book, it just made complete sense to create a family like those ones I loved.

ELLIOTT: The story of the Penderwicks, motherless children on this summer adventure, staying in this house, it seems to me a bit of a throwback. Their adventures are rather innocent, too, and I think that's a bit of a departure from some of the popular preteen books that you see these days on the shelves. They tend to deal with a lot harsher, more explicit topics.

Ms. BIRDSALL: That was intentional. There were some rough parts of my childhood, as I expect there are of many children's childhoods. And because my childhood was in the '50s and early '60s, the only books I had to read were these innocent adventures. So for me, my paradigm was that when things got rough, I escaped into innocence. I didn't escape into a book about children who were also having difficult times. And I really believed in that and that's what I wanted to give to children and frankly that's what I wanted to write about, kids getting lost or climbing trees but yet with a sense of humor and a sense of impending danger that a child can have when the danger is whether or not they're going to get wet that day. And for children that are leading relatively safe lives, those are big dangers and they need to work through them, too, not just the terrible things.

ELLIOTT: Can you read a favorite passage for us from "The Penderwicks"?

Ms. BIRDSALL: Sure, I'd love to. This is from Chapter 3 called The MOOPS. (Reading) `It was Batty's bedtime. She had taken a bath, brushed her teeth and put on her mermaid pajamas and now she was standing in the middle of her Aarondell(ph) bedroom looking around. The butterfly wings were hanging on the closet doorknob ready for morning. Her favorite picture of Hound, the one that her father had framed, was on the little white dresser by the window. Rosalind had put Batty's special unicorn blanket on the bed and Frederick(ph) the horse, Funty(ph) the blue elephant, Eursalla(ph) the bear and Fred the other bear were sitting on the pillow. It was an OK bedroom, Batty decided, not as safe and cozy as her room at home, but at least the closet had that secret passage into Roslyn's room. Nothing scary could hide in a closet like that, not with Roslyn right there.'

ELLIOTT: Jeanne Birdsall joined us from the studios of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. She won the National Book Award for young people's literature for her book "The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy."

Thank you.

Ms. BIRDSALL: And thank you.

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