Penny Dreadful is the kind of book that librarians and teachers live for. This is the book that you secretly keep in the back of your mind, just waiting for the earnest boy or girl who comes to you and asks for something new. This is what you hold on to for the summer doldrums or the winter blahs, when kids are tired of required reading and want something comforting. Penny Dreadful is like your favorite flavor of ice cream, reliably tasty and never disappointing.
The plot is simple and remarkably classic. Penelope Grey lives a life that many other kids would dream of, with a huge house, loving if distant parents, a private tutor and every creature comfort. Yet her life is boring, nothing at all like the life of children in books. So Penelope makes one wish, a small and simple wish that something interesting would happen.
She has absolutely no idea what she's in for.
Before she knows it, Penelope's comfortable life is turned upside down. Her father has quit his job and soon the family is out of money. Their lavish lifestyle rapidly disappears. Soon the only option the Greys have left is to move to Thrush Junction, Tennessee, the home of Mrs Grey's elderly aunt who recently passed away. Great-Aunt Betty owned a rambling house there, which she left to Penelope's mom. The plan is to start life over again in Thrush Junction -- and that is just what the family does, with some amazing results. Very soon Penelope has become someone she would scarcely have recognized in her old life, and she's determined to hang on to her new self no matter what it takes.
Laurel Snyder has a good thing going here, something that many writers aspire to but aren't able to pull off. There's scarcely a misstep in Penny Dreadful -- the characters are quirky but believable, the problems are those kids can actually identify with, and there's even a whiff of magic to keep things interesting. Readers will want to move into Thrush Junction and meet Penny's clever and adventurous friends (especially Luella, my absolute favorite. Is it too much to hope Laurel Snyder brings Luella back again??). I love the way Penny relates to the books she's read, wanting to spice up her own life so it more closely resembles the stories she loves. Although at the beginning of the book Penny lives a life of privilege, she's no Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Rather, she's an ordinary little girl craving an extraordingary life. I was exactly the same way as a kid, and I suspect there are more than a few of us out there (if you're reading this, you probably were too).
Bottom line: Penny Dreadful is a believable yet dreamily hopeful novel that is just right for readers who want something different and still reminiscent of familiar favorites. I firmly believe this is one that will have a long life on many recommended reading lists, and it's a great choice for reading aloud together.
Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, published by Random House
Sample quote: "With an unfamiliar flutter in her chest, Penelope unfolded the scrap of paper and read what she'd written one last time. I wish something interesting would happen when I least expect it, just like in a book. Penelope refolded her wish carefully and tossed it into the well. Then she leaned over and peered down after it."