In 2005, Jeanne Birdsall published her debut novel, The Penderwicks, and introduced readers to a family of unique, loving, and unforgettable sisters. Readers have followed along on various Penderwick adventures over the years, and are now preparing to say goodbye as the series comes to a close with The Penderwicks At Last. This final volume takes the family and readers back to the setting of the first book, Arundel. Here, we chat with author Jeanne Birdsall about Arundel, Beyoncé, and what she’s learned over the course of the series.
Bookish: The series ends where it began: at Arundel. What was it like for you to visit Arundel again?
Jeanne Birdsall: At first, I couldn’t remember the exact layout of the place, and couldn’t find the map I thought I’d made for the first book. But once I worked it out (or guessed, like with the greenhouse) the return was pure fun. I did feel guilty about stripping the attics bare—and disappointing Lydia—but it was too good a story to leave out.
Bookish: The first Penderwick novel was published in 2005, and it was your debut. What have you learned as a writer while penning this series?
JB: I’d like to say I’ve learned not to panic halfway into writing a book, but even after getting through the first four in the series, there were plenty of times during the fifth that I wailed, “I can’t do this! I’ll never get to the end!” My husband and editor bore the brunt of these raves. Both have learned to suggest I either take a nap or get something to eat.
Bookish: Though the books have references to Beyoncé and Doctor Who, there is a strong timeless feeling that permeates it all. Was that something you consciously wanted to weave in?
JB: But… but… Doctor Who is literally timeless! And although Beyoncé isn’t a Time Lord, she’s also timeless. This would have been true even if she hadn’t sung “At Last” at President Obama’s Inaugural Ball, but certainly that sealed it.
It isn’t so much that I consciously tried to make the series timeless as that I simply think that way. I’m not as interested in—or maybe not sufficiently aware of—the present moment, as much I am in layers of time, and the things that stay the same, echoing, throughout.
Bookish: Over the course of the series, which sister surprised you the most? And, if you can pick, which will you miss writing the most?
JB: Lydia surprised me the most, and I can’t say any more than that (spoilers). If I were to miss writing about any of the characters, it would be Jane. I can always dump my writing frustrations onto her.
Bookish: In this final installment, Lydia finds herself homesick for Arundel before she even leaves. Did you feel similarly about saying goodbye to the series?
JB: I’d been working toward this ending for years, and was pleased to reach it while still alive, and with an intact mind and spirit. Thus, no regrets or homesickness. Anyway, the characters continue to live on in my imagination, just where they’ve been all along. As does Arundel—I’m thinking of someday painting over the Bacchanalia on the dining room ceiling.
Bookish: How long have you known where life would take the Penderwick clan? Do you have ideas about where their lives lead after this book ends that you’d share with readers?
JB: Some parts I’ve known from the beginning, and others I figured out along the way. And, yes, I have ideas about their lives after The Penderwicks at Last, and nope, I can’t share any of them. That would be cheating.
Jeanne Birdsall is the National Book Award–winning author of the children’s book The Penderwicks and its sequel, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, both of which were also New York Times bestsellers. She grew up in the suburbs west of Philadelphia, where she attended wonderful public schools. Although Birdsall first decided to become a writer when she was 10 years old, it took her until she was 41 to get started. In the years in between, Birdsall had many strange jobs to support herself while working hard as a photographer. Birdsall’s photographs are included in the permanent collections of museums, including the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Art Museum. She lives with her husband in Northampton, Massachusetts. Their house is old and comfortable, full of unruly animals, and surrounded by gardens.