And, despite my difficulty with the ultra-quirk end of the spectrum—inhabited primarily by Stargirl and her ukelele—I adored this book. It's basically Hart of Dixie, if Zoe Hart happened to be a formerly affluent ten-year-old. It's got that same city-to-small-Southern-town move, that same solitude-to-community arc, the same cultural fish-out-of-water story, as well as a lot of learning about friendship and not making assumptions and working together and just plain old summertime kid fun.
THE BOOKS! Penny is a huge reader, most of her understanding of the world comes from living vicariously through books, and thus, that affects her thought process and perspective:
Duncan didn't look especially fragile or sensitive to Penny, no more so than anyone else she'd ever met. But looks could be deceiving. Maybe Duncan was like an upsetting book with an ordinary, happy cover. Maybe he was Bridge to Terabithia.
PENNY AND HER PARENTS! There is a whole lot of strife in the household, most of it due to financial woes—and that, in itself, is another plus: speaking as someone who grew up in a "scrimp and pinch" family, as much as adults try to protect them from it, economic hardship is a very real fear for kids, and it's always nice to see it addressed—but there's also plenty of love and affection. And it isn't just Penny's family. All of the various parents at the Whippoorwillows compound are loving and emotionally generous, with their own children and with the children of others, and the children have those same qualities. While that might seem unrealistic to some readers, it's important to remember that the tenants aren't random: every family living there is there by specific invitation.
FRIENDSHIP! As I mentioned above, there are lessons about friendship, about making assumptions, about working together, and about when to ask for help... but all of them are integrated organically into the story, and it's very much a story about Penny figuring things out, rather than a story created to teach the reader. Upon her family's arrival at the Whippoorwillows, Penny almost immediately finds a bosom friend in Luella. They clearly adore each other, but that doesn't prevent them from having disagreements or from—especially in Penny's case, as she's never really had a real friend before—making mistakes.
THE ART! I love it so much when it's clear that the artist did a close-read of the text. Abigail Halpin includes so many dead-on-the-money details that I'm going to hunt around for other chapter books she's illustrated. [ETA: Well, then. That was the easiest research I've done, like, ever.]
It's warm and cozy, it's about family and friends and community, and about how you don't have to go out looking for dragons to be a hero: oftentimes, it's everyday life that brings the real adventure.
Book source: ILLed through my library.