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Birdsall's secret: Listening like a kid

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Jeanne Birdsall has received scores of great reviews for her debut children's novel, The Penderwicks. But her favorite comes from a third-grader who wrote, "This book is about being a good listener even if you are a grown-up."

"It just touches my heart," says Birdsall, whose lighthearted adventure story about four sisters won this year's National Book Award for young people's literature.

Birdsall was "Googling myself"' when she found the website of the Northport-East Northport (N.Y.) Public Library, which posts online reviews by younger readers who are awarding their version of the Newbery Prize. The real Newbery, for the best children's book, is given annually by the American Library Association.

The review of The Penderwicks, signed simply Scott, was "charming," Birdsall says. "It encompasses so much of my own philosophy about crossing the divide between being a child and being a grown-up."

At the black-tie awards gala in New York in November, Birdsall quoted Scott's review. Later, when the winners were being photographed, Norman Mailer, who received a lifetime achievement award, said to her, "Nice speech."

"My mouth dropped open," Birdsall says.

Scott turns out to be Scott Hatch, 8, who hasn't heard of Mailer but says Birdsall is a "good writer who was very nice to quote me."

At 54, Birdsall is a late bloomer. A former photographer who lives in Northampton, Mass., she started writing at 41. She was married for the first time at 43 to a high school classmate who had come back into her life. "I feel very lucky, like I've started all over again," she says.

She has two grown stepchildren and a niece and nephew, 10 and 12, who help inspire her. Her own childhood, outside Philadelphia, wasn't happy. After her parents divorced when she was 10, she says, "books saved me." At the Radnor Public Library near Philadelphia, she discovered Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit, authors who became "surrogate parents" by describing close-knit families, the kind she wished she had.

Birdsall recalls reading that Eager wrote stories for his own children in the '50s and '60s because as a child, he had loved similar books by Nesbit a generation earlier.

She was struck by "this connection between authors across time" and vowed to join them someday.

When she eventually did, she set out to write for "middle readers," ages 8 to 12, "the time of my life when I started to love books."

The four sisters in The Penderwicks are being raised by their widowed father. However, her novel lacks the more explicit issues of the other books nominated for the award.

Birdsall's at work on a sequel she hopes will be part of a five-book series. She says she's a slow writer but remembers going to the library every week when she was 10, "hoping that one of my favorite authors had written something new."

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