If you sense that a boy is a creature whose behavior, though accompanied by disaster and dirt, does not really need to be medicated out of him, however uncomfortable a future this consigns you to, this is the book for you — I mean, for your boy, of course.
(Like all great children’s literature, it’s the parents who will gain all the insight from reading it. “Oh, this is how boys are!!” “It’s not just our clueless twelve-year old!” “I see the ‘thought process’ that went into that particular catastrophe!” “We are not alone!”)
Tarkington just somehow knows what boys are all about. Boys are not rational. If our boys today had one-tenth the freedom the boys in his books have, they’d be this naughty and troublesome and we’d realize how sadly unfamiliar we are with their true natures when we expect them to be otherwise. And how hilariously funny they are. Sadly for them, the early 21st century American boy is more constrained than his Eton-collared Edwardian counterpart on a long Sunday afternoon.
I suggest these books because they have fantastic writing and jolly adventures. Penrod and his friends sense that adults are in a conspiracy to derail their fun. The episodes manage to convey the struggle of childhood against this unaccountable truth as well as the awkwardness inherent in trying to live up to parents’ demands.
But I also think the books are worthwhile just so you remember something: American life used to be quite different, in a way that we are in danger of never knowing. Everyone forgets, true; but our society has a peculiar desire to rewrite history.
This desire isn’t unique by any means. It’s typical of any regime that attempts perfectibility. Today’s version takes the form of political correctness, and if the powers that be ever turned their gaze on this book, they’d destroy every copy.
In his own way, Tarkington has become as politically incorrect as it is possible to be. Reading this book to your children may constitute, to borrow a leftist term, a subversive act, and I’m all for it.
It’s not merely a political gesture to read Penrod, though, because if it were, there would be no laughter. And in our late day, laughter may be our last defense and our secret handshake. We can identify the enemies of childhood and goodness and little boys getting into mischief by their inability to laugh about anything; and the friends of same by their appreciation of this sort of book.
Today’s humorlessness makes people miss the sly perception Tarkington gives us, that, back in the day, “inequalities” as we like to call them now had their own way of balancing themselves. The process of growing up and learning to live with others isn’t so much a power struggle, as we are taught now, as a sorting of realities that even a twelve-year old boy must become aware of, sooner or later. It’s an education we must all get. It’s just a question of when.
Tarkington’s style rewards careful reading out loud (and by the way, if you really want your child to learn to write, this is the sort of book you should be giving him — makes your job a lot easier in the end).
Take your time; don’t rush. The meaning of each sentence isn’t jumping out at you, because he’s ironic and his narrative voice contains layers (another reason the Thought Police will go after him, so Shhhh! don’t let it out that these are great books).
The second book (sometimes sold together with the first, so check your edition), is Penrod and Sam:
The third, and in some ways, funniest, is Penrod Jashber:
A shorter Tarkington book, much enjoyed by Will at the age of about 16 and Bridget at the age of 10 (in no small part because those are the ages of the ridiculous protagonist and his extremely vexing and undignified sister), is Seventeen. This one seems to be out of print, but you can find used copies and the Kindle version on Amazon.
Read it with gusto right to the end, where the delightful kicker might sneak by you if you aren’t attentive!
What is the Like Mother, Like Daughter Library Project?
*Caution: As a few comments mention, I probably should warn you that there are some depictions of black children in this story that are conditioned by the time it was written (as every story must be), including a racial epithet that needs to be replaced by another word when read aloud (as in Huckleberry Finn).
If you read the discussion, you will see why I stand by my recommendation of this book, and indeed think it’s a small part of our collective memory better not obliterated; and that it can actually help everyone understand things as they are now a bit better. I would never recommend a book that I thought had something objectively wrong in it, presented as if it is right or doesn’t matter. But I do want you to be forewarned about it.
**I am reluctantly bowing to pressure to post ages for the books. I live by Lewis’ maxim,
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
In any case, any book recommended here will likely be enjoyed by you, so you can read it and then decide who will enjoy it most.