I enjoy reading books like Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm. This 2007 Newbery Honor book is an example of "children's domestic fiction." Roger Sutton described this category in a New York Times book review:
"...stories for 9-to-12-year-olds about school, friends and family... In these books, a girl (usually) has a nice-enough life and confronts just enough challenges to keep things interesting. Her best friend finds a new best friend, or her best friend moves away. She moves away. Maybe the other kids ostracize her, or there’s a pestering new baby or stepmother. Any of these motifs can garner enough empathy for the heroine that, while we may not want to be her, we are pleased to have an emotional stake in her fortunes."
I love books like this because they show the beauty of the everyday. :)
Penny from Heaven is the story of eleven-year-old Penny Falucci. It's a book full of family goodness, summer fun, and American history. (There's even an author's note on the piece of American history explored in the novel.) I loved reading about Penny's Italian family and their amazing Sunday dinners, and how food is everything in her Italian home.
I loved reading parts like Penny's perfect day with her favorite uncle. Uncle Dominic picks her up and they head for the beach. They go swimming until they're tired, then share a bag of peanuts. They hit the boardwalk for the bumper cars, the Ferris wheel, the teacups, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the whip. They eat hot dogs with sauerkraut and wash them down with fresh-squeezed orangeade. The windows are rolled down and a coconut patty melts in Penny's mouth during the drive home. A pretty perfect day. :)
But Penny has problems too. Her grandparents are embarrassing and Uncle Dominic is eccentric. Her mother is dating the milkman. And there's a real sadness in the story because Penny's father died when she was just a baby and the circumstances of his death are kept a secret from her. Even though the story is filled with great things like butter pecan ice cream, baseball, and childhood mischief, it's that sadness about Penny's father that lingers when I'm finished reading the novel.
I found the happy ending a bit forced. Was it really necessary for Penny to have her own little love story? It seemed cheesy for everyone to stand up and shout, "To Penny!" and click glasses during a family gathering towards the end of the story...
I found myself crying at one point in the novel. Penny is in the hospital because of a horrible accident. She is depressed and stops eating. Her grandmother shows up with Penny's favorite dish:
Something in her voice makes me open my mouth, and before I have a chance to shut it, she pops a piece of pastiera in like I'm a baby, and it tastes so good, like it's the best thing I've ever eaten in my whole life. She feds me another piece... and I don't know what it is, but the tears start rolling down my cheeks, and once I start I can't seem to stop. And pretty soon I'm crying for everything...
I could feel Penny's frustration. And I suddenly remembered when I was in the hospital because I had dengue fever. I was thirteen and I seriously thought I was going to die. (Before I was diagnosed, the local news had reported that around eight people had already died from dengue fever.) I didn't have an appetite. Relatives brought me good food: pizza (my favorite), doughnuts, lanzones (another favorite). I didn't touch any of it. It was my brothers who ended up eating everything.
Then one day, my lola (grandmother) sent over some soup she had cooked for me. Actually, it was just the beef broth base for nilaga. But it's still the best thing I've ever eaten in my whole life. After that, my normal healthy appetite returned and I just kept getting better and better.
After reading Penny from Heaven, I got to thinking... Does love really make food taste better? Remember the old tv show My So-Called Life? (I love that show!) In one episode, the main character Angela (played by Claire Danes) wonders why leftover spaghetti tastes sooo much better when heated by her father.
Even the simplest food tastes great when it's my mother who cooks it. There's Milo, too. Yes, that chocolate drink. I hate Milo. I don't think it tastes good. But some years ago, in Baguio City, my best friends and I sipped hot Milo together and it tasted wonderful. Several times after that early morning I tried duplicating that cup of Milo - and failed. I suspect that earlier cup was so good only because I was with CY and Isaac...
Penny Falucci gets to be with both sides of her family only once:
Everyone comes. Nonny, Uncle Paulie and Aunt Gina, Uncle Nunzio and Aunt Rosa, Uncle Ralphie and Aunt Fulvia, Uncle Angelo and Aunt Teresa, Uncle Sally, and Frankie and the baby cousins, too... It's just plain old roast chicken with mashed potatoes and over-cooked peas and onions, but it's the best meal I've ever had in my whole life.