2005 National Book Awards Winner
Young People's Literature

Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks:
A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits,
and a Very Interesting Boy

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers


Acceptance Speech


Good evening. Almost 20 years after the National Book Awards began, a prize was introduced for children’s literature. Childhood comes first, yet children often lag behind, whatever the politicians tell us. We judges of young people’s literature felt a particular blessing and burden, for the young are the purest, most vulnerable and unshakeable of all readers. Children will not care which book wins a prize tonight. You have to love them for that.

This year brought 200 varying entries but fiction led the field as our finalists prove. All five are novels. “The mansion of fiction,” wrote Henry James, “has many rooms.” Children’s literature must make space for the whole tribe of childhood, perhaps the last tribe, it’s been said, we all share. E.B. White wrote in Charlotte’s Web, “It is deeply satisfying to win a prize in front of a lot of people.” Alas, our task tonight is to give only one author that satisfaction. Our glorious finalists are:

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Where I Want To Be by Adele Griffin, published by Putnam Penguin.
Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, published by Atheneum.
Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers, published by Harper Tempest Amistad.
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, published by Harcourt.

Jeanne Birdsall (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)

Our panel of judges consisted of five dedicated readers, all of us former children. Deep thanks to Mari Evans, Claudia Mills, Jim Murphy and Rita Williams-Garcia. We also thank Sherrie Young for her tireless work on our behalf at the National Book Foundation as well as Harold and all the staff.

Early on, we spoke about what we looked for in great art for young people. We mentioned inventiveness, humor, consistency, works that young people would actually want to read, what one judge called “inescapable language,” and that last figure to escape from Pandora’s Box, Hope. All of our finalists shine with these qualities and more. Each book has the power of conviction.

Jeanne Birdsall with her husband.
Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

Our winning book is a debut novel of golden summer days with gardens and a dog, four sisters who rival Little Women in a new children’s classic. This year’s National Book Award in Young People’s Literature goes to Jeanne Birdsall for The Penderwicks. [Applause]


You know, I took up this profession so I’d never have to get dressed up. I think I’m the only woman here with a train. I’ve gotten many, many wonderful reviews for this book but my very favorite comes from a third grader on Long Island named Scott. He said, “This book is about being a good listener even if you’re a grown up.” I’d like to use Scott’s words for my husband, who knows who he is, for my agent, Barbara Kouts, for my wonderful editor, Michelle Frey, for everyone at Random House, for the judges and everyone at the National Book Foundation. Thank you for being good listeners even though you are grownups. Thank you. [Applause]

From the Publisher

A lighthearted story of four girls and their father, a gentle, widowed botany professor who allows his daughters their freedom but is always nearby when they need comfort or support.

Jeanne Birdsall grew up in the suburbs west of Philadelphia. She has worked at a variety of professions, including photography. Her visual work is included in the permanent collections of several museums and galleries, including the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Art Museum. She lives in western Massachusetts. The Penderwicks is her first published book.

Judges' Citation

Four sisters and their widowed father spend three enchanted weeks at a summer cottage: Rosalind experiences the poignancy of first unrequited love; Skye confronts a tyrannical, aristocratic neighbor; Jane writes a new book about her favorite detective heroine; and little Batty befriends two rabbits. This enormously heartwarming and satisfying novel honors and enriches the beloved tradition of the classic children's family story. The Penderwicks are worthy companions to Alcott's March sisters or Nesbit's Bastables—endearing and enduring characters whose company we can cherish.