That Was Then, This Is Now: Pennington’s Last Term
For this latest installment I chose to reread Pennington’s Last Term by K.M. Peyton, a book which, in my mind and memory, I group with books like Requiem for a Princess — British, with pencil drawings that are not especially attractive.
As a teen this appealed to me for several reasons. The setting — England, and oh so very British. The talk of “forms” and “comprehensive schools” and “A and O levels” and eating chips on the quay was so foreign, exotic, and confusing to me. Also things like the bus into the village, the bread van, and village halls with ladies doling out tea. But there was another element to this book that made it such a keeper for me. The main character, Penn, is a hulking older teenage boy, broody, often in trouble. Yet he is an extraordinarily gifted pianist, a misunderstood bad boy who has trouble relating to girls, who gets into trouble at school, and who has a lousy home life but has an understanding mentor. The trappings may have been vintage England, the but the heart of this story was all YA problem novel with a dreamy boy! This book was a bridge for me into older teen novels, especially sensitive ones. I read it several times over and can’t wait to revisit Penn…
I can honestly say that I loved reading this just as much now as I did then. The story was every bit as touching as I remembered, but I’d forgotten how funny I thought many of the lines were — the clever, dry writing reminded me of John Green. One notable difference this time around as an adult reader who at this point has now read a lot of British fiction and also avidly watched the entire Seven Up documentary series: I was very aware of how much of this story had to do with Penn’s class in society. He attends a local comprehensive school and could have left already, but his mother pushed for an extra year. He and his classmates will leave school and look for jobs as truck drivers or hairdressers and spend their evenings in the pub. Penn’s parents drink and are abusive and don’t trust the police. So, Penn (full name: Patrick Pennington) has quite a bit of his life mapped out for him already. Not much is expected of him, and he doesn’t aim to prove anyone wrong. The games master (gym teacher) and his music teacher are the only ones who don’t mind having him around because he’s such a good athlete and a talented pianist.
Most of the story centers on him getting ready for a piano competition and being engaged in a battle of wills with the school and the awful headmaster, who are determined to send him to a juvenile detention center. One of their battles? The length of his hair. It is easy to see how Penn feels trapped and oppressed by the adults in his life. He is an extremely sympathetic character, especially when you see the softer sides of him, such as in his relationship with his best friend, Bates. And here is another very strange part of this book, but I can’t tell if it’s just because it was written in 1970. Bates is a gifted singer and he sings very old traditional folksongs. Many parts of the songs are excerpted, and everyone, tough or not, enjoys listening to him. (The comic element of this storyline is that Bates has to be just the right amount of drunk to sing in public.)
There are definitely some dated quirks to Pennington’s Last Term — it may read a bit more “historical” now, reflecting England in the late 1960s (the “bird” he is interested in looks just like Twiggy in my mind from the way she is described, and his headmaster uses corporal punishment) — but as a story it still holds up.
If you or your readers enjoy stories about artistic teens, or teens in trying to rise above difficult circumstances, you may like these more contemporary offerings:
- Chris Crutcher, 2000 Margaret A. Edwards Award recipient, has written many books about troubled teens and talented athletes. While I think his books are a bit more serious than this one, Stotan! and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes come to mind as recommendations for books with some of the same emotions and issues.
- The 2013 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list Gowns, Greasepaint, and Guitars has many titles to check out about talented teens in the arts
- From 2004, the PPYA list On that Note: Music and Musicians — yes, I recommended this list when I reread Midnight Hour Encores, but I have to recommend it again!
And likewise, if you enjoy those more contemporary titles, why not give old Pennington a try?
— Sarah Debraski, currently reading Red Moon by Benjamin Percy