Book Review: Penny Dreadful

Penny DreadfulPenny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Penelope Grey has a perfectly fine life. She lives in a big mansion in the City, where all the household chores are taken care off by pleasant staff. She doesn’t even have to go to school, as a tutor comes to her. Her parents – on the rare occasions that she sees them – are nice. She has a couple of nice playmates. Everything is nice. Nice… and really, really boring. She escapes into book after book (the shout-outs to familiar titles are a nice touch), finally deciding to do something that the characters do in each story. That’s how she comes to drop a wish into a well: “I wish something interesting would happen when I least expect it, just like in a book.”

And then, to her surprise, something interesting happens. Her father quits his job, the family runs out of money, and the unexpected inheritance of an old house in a tiny East Tennessee town seems like a lucky solution. But Penelope is about to learn that good things and bad things tend to come wrapped up together, and sometimes luck is a matter of perspective.

The first section of the book is pretty quiet, underscoring Penelope’s serious ennui. When the family leaves the City for Thrush Junction and its colorful inhabitants, the pace picks up. Penelope drops her boring first name for the more cheerful nickname of Penny, and she gets to know the local kids. She starts experiencing adventures instead of just reading about them.

This book got a little bump of publicity when a reader objected to the fact that Penny’s new neighbors include a pair of lesbian moms and their son, a family presented just as matter-of-factly as any of the other characters. For Penny, the fact that Willa has a wife is no more surprising than the fact that she has “hair to her knees.” Like any kid, she’s not all that interested in the relationships between the adults around her.

This is an illustrated chapter book, and Abigail Halpin’s slightly cartoony style offers the perfect complement to Snyder’s text. Throughout the book, the voice of the narrator is excellent. In the first chapter, when Penelope is living vicariously through reading, the narration sounds very much like listening to someone telling the story. As she makes friends and has real-life experiences, the voice of the narrator fades into the background. (With the right voice talent, this could be an OUTSTANDING audiobook.) Filled with gentle humor, quirky characters, and small adventures, this is a good choice for older elementary school readers, especially those who have read and enjoyed some of Penny’s favorite books.

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