Estes effectively uses the small-town environment of Cranbury and its surrounding countryside as the setting of Ginger Pye. Rachel and Jerry explore nearby fields and farms, swim in the reservoir, pick berries by the railroad station, take trips to the huge scenic rocks that border the town, sled down snow-covered hills in the winter, and venture into the skeleton houses under construction in the town. Nature and the change of seasons provide a frame for the action and a metaphoric reassurance that good times will indeed follow bad, happiness will follow sorrow. Simple descriptive passages evoke the children's love for their town and its natural attractions.
The book's temporal setting is not as well defined. Small details, such as the use of gas lamps and trolleys, the relative rarity of automobiles, and women not being able to serve on juries, indicate that the story takes place in the past, probably in the late 1910s. The setting does not seem dated, however, because the characters and situations in Ginger Pye are, in large part, universal to childhood. The hints scattered by the author throughout the book are likely to interest rather than confuse, and some readers may even be spurred on to minor detective work in an attempt to identify the time period more precisely.
Ginger Pye is told from the third-person point of view with alternating perspectives. The narrative focuses on Rachel's perspective. In one very funny section, the viewpoint is that of Ginger Pye himself. The author makes extensive use of humor, often through Rachel's fascination with the differences in the sounds and meaning of words—"vilyun" sounds more "vilyunous" than "villain"— or through dialogue, particularly exchanges with Uncle Benny. The author captures the natural rhythm of children's speech and their interest in word play and usage. Rachel and Jerry tell each other an ongoing story about the adventures of Martin Boombernickles, a character who assumes various guises. When Mrs. Pye asks Rachel where she got the name "Boombernickles," Rachel does not know, but readers understand the significance of private naming.
Estes also accurately conveys the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder. Rachel in particular likes to indulge in "what ifs," and the book contains many references to fairy tales and stories with which children may be familiar—"The Snow Queen," "The Tinder Box," Tom Sawyer—attesting to an important childhood connection between reality and fantasy.
Estes' books tend to be episodic rather than tightly plotted or organized. Some critics have asserted that Ginger Pye's extensive use of flashbacks, anecdotes, and introspective questioning interrupts the progression of the narrative and may cause younger readers to lose the thread of the story. On the other hand, such devices may cause readers to more closely identify with the characters whose perspectives are explored. Another criticism concerns the somewhat melodramatic resolution of the book. The reason for Ginger Pye's disappearance may not strike readers as believable: Ginger's talents have led to his abduction and training for a vaudeville act. The conclusion of the mystery thus seems rather forced, but the emotions stirred by Ginger's reunion with his family may well alleviate any sense of contrivance.
Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. This collection of essays about the writing and reading of children's books includes several appreciative references to Estes's works. In particular, it cites her use of language to express children's delight in word play and in the making of meaning.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. "Eleanor Estes." In More Books by More People. New York: Citation Press, 1974. In this interview, Estes discusses her writing career, habits, and the origin of Ginger Pye.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. The Junior Book of Authors. Rev. ed. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1951. Estes supplies a brief autobiographical sketch describing her childhood in Connecticut and early influences on her writing.