Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Penny Dreadful review

Penny Dreadful
by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Abigail Halpin
Random House
September 2010

Penelope Grey leads a pretty regulated life at her family's mansion in the city, with a private tutor, maid and chef to take care of her every need. Bored, she decides to make a wish in an old well, for an everything change - a total life transformation. Shortly thereafter, her father quits his steady job in order to become a writer, something that leads to the financial ruin of the family, and an eventual move to an old great-aunt's house in the country which they've inherited in the small town of Thrush Junction.

Snyder really has a way of getting inside a kid's head, and understanding how they think, revealed in little details. For example, when Penny meets one of her new neighbors, a boy next door, she notes that he is wearing a striped shirt. She follows that observation by wondering why it is, exactly, that boys seem to wear stripes so often. Great question! This book reminded me of The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron; Penny even ends up trapped in a hole, briefly, relying on her friends to get her out of the jam, much the way Lucky does, except Penny Dreadful is much lighter and funnier in tone. No scrotums or dead parents in this novel. Penny's parents do seem pretty whimsical, almost to the point of absurdity, but the story has a certain quirky internal logic that never wavers.

Penny often falls prey to magical thinking, and the reader never really knows for sure... was the well she makes a wish on magical or not? Her reasoning is that her father quitting his job may have been her fault. So, she makes a second wish to "fix everything" deciding that if it works, the well is magical, and she's done her best, if it doesn't work, then the first wish coming true was only a coincidence and therefore not her fault. Like most readers, I'm betting on the well not being magical, but I love the fact that it's so open-ended.

Penny, an avid reader herself, is always hoping for an adventure, much like the things she reads about. I was tickled to see an homage to so many children's books in Penny Dreadful. Penny's mention of a book of "unfortunate events" that she's reading, where "a baby was about to bite someone," made me laugh out loud. She also mentions children's lit favorites such as The Penderwicks, The Secret Garden, Ramona, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and Ballet Shoes. Heartwarmingly, Penny wonders if another of her new neighbors, a girl about her age, Luella, will be the Betsy to her Tacy. This collection of classics is fine company to keep, and the sweetness of the story makes this book suitable for third through fifth grade readers.

I borrowed this book from the library.


  1. I loved this book, too. In fact, I loved it so much, I bought a copy for my 4th-grader niece for Christmas!

  2. Thanks so much for your review of Penny Dreadful. I am often looking for good books for that age group.

    ~ Lauri Chandler

  3. I know! Reading this makes me want to run back and re-read a lot of those classics that are mentioned.

  4. I loved Penny Dreadful. I think of it as a real Librarian's Book, with all those references to classic children's books. She had me right off the bat when she mentioned Anne of Green Gables. The wishing well situation seemed right out of Edward Eager's Magic or Not? When I was a kid reading that, I assumed it was magic, but as an adult, not so much. But I love how she used that idea. (I know Laurel Snyder has read Edward Eager, because ANY WHICH WALL was basically a tribute to him.)

  5. Add me as a ditto! I just adored Penny and her friends. Laurel did such an incredible job weaving a wide variety of children's lit into the story, whether by title, excerpt, or innuendo. She is SO talented. Have you read Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains?

    PS - Here's what we said about Penny Dreadful in the Reading Tub

  6. Great review, Terry! Yeah, one of the things that really stuck out for me about this book was the way that money worries impact a kid. As an adult - when you're faced with a tight budget, you have some measure of control: cut expenses, get a new job, do what you need to do. But, as a kid, I think coping with a financial emergency is much more scary, since there's not a lot you can really do. I liked how Penny hopes she'll find a lost pirate treasure - it sounds like the kind of thing I would have been fascinated by as a kid, and the fact that her family really needs the money adds an extra layer of tension to it.



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