Penny from Heaven -- Jennifer L. Holm

Penny from heavenSummer, 1953:

My idea of Heaven has nothing to do with clouds or angels. In my Heaven there's butter pecan ice cream and swimming pools and baseball games. The Brooklyn Dodgers always win, and I have the best seat in the house, right behind the Dodgers' dugout. That's the only advantage that I can see to being dead: You get the best seat in the house.

I think about Heaven a lot. Not because of the usual reasons, though. I'm only eleven, and I don't plan on dying until I'm at least a hundred. It's just that I'm named after that Bing Crosby song "Pennies from Heaven," and when you're named after something, you can't help but think about it.

Penny lives with her mother, her mother's parents ("plain old American, and Methodist") and the family dog, 15-year-old Scarlett O'Hara. Her father's side of the family—the Italian Catholics—live within walking distance. 

Ever since her father's death the two sides of the family have avoided each other. Penny spends a lot of time with both families and loves them both very much. (The food is much, MUCH better on the Italian side, though.) But although the two families try to avoid being negative about each other around Penny, the separation is hard on her:

Sometimes I feel like a translator. Mother is always asking me this or that about my father's family, and I have to try to figure out what she means, like it's a different language. Certain things just get her upset. Like when she finds out that the uncles have taken me to Shady Grove Cemetery. I don't know why this bothers her so much; you'd think she'd be happy I visit my father, but it has the opposite effect.

My affection for Holm's characters just sort of crept up on me—I hadn't realized how much I cared about them until Something Bad Happened and I found myself crying. 

The story itself starts off quiet and lightly comic: Penny tells the reader about her various family members and has some adventures with her cousin Frankie. She does mention the fact that her mother hardly ever talks about her father, and never talks about the circumstances of his death—that in itself was enough to alert me to the fact that there was Rough Stuff Ahead.

In the Author's Note, Jennifer Holm reveals that many of the people and events in Penny from Heaven were inspired by her own family's history—and she's included pages and pages of photos from her family album, which was a super-nice touch. She also gives the reader more information about the treatment of Italian-Americans during WWII.

It's a good pick for 10-12-year-old historical fiction fans. Try it out on fans of Ann M. Martin's books (I'm talking the Good Ones, not the Babysitter's Club) and fans of other quiet-ish family dramas filled with eccentric characters. (Each Little Bird and Swear to Howdy both sprang to mind, though Howdy is much rowdier.) Unfortunately, the cover art is A WICKED SNOOZE, so kids might need a nudge to pick it up.