Literary Criticism and Significance
Jennifer L. Holm is the author of several historical and contemporary novels for young adults, as well as a series of graphic novels for younger readers. Holm has stated that she draws heavily on her childhood memories in writing her novels, and Penny From Heaven in particular was inspired by her experience growing up as part of a large Italian-American family. Holm received her second Newbery Honor forPenny From Heaven, after her novel Our Only May Amelia was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2000. In addition to receiving the 2007 Newbery Honor, Penny From Heaven was a New York Times bestseller, an ALA Notable children’s books, and one of the New York Public Library’s 100 titles for reading and sharing in 2006. The novel received generally favorable reviews, with critics praising the author’s strong evocation of time, place and character, although some reviewers cited the meandering plotline as a weak point.
Publisher’s Weekly noted Holm’s ability to “conjure” up an authentic 1950s New Jersey summer, as well as the strong development of her “plucky,” winning heroine. School Library Journal highlighted the “seamlessly interwoven details from everyday life” that make Penny From Heaven such a clear, believable period piece. SLJ reviewer Tricia Melgaard did call the plot “a bit weak,” but she praised the story’s abundance of “warmth and humor.” Booklist noted the “impressive” melding of tragedy and comedy throughout the novel, as well as the “vivid,” idiosyncratic characters. Similarly, Kirkus Reviews reported that the “eccentricities” of Holm’s characters “sparkle,” as does the novel’s 1950s setting. However, the reviewer noted that the buildup to the novel’s central revelation about Penny’s father is so slow, it seems a bit “anticlimactic” when it finally arrives. Children’s Literature called Penny an “enchanting” character and found Holm’s masterfully developed setting “as good as time travel into the life of the 1950s.” In addition, the reviewer praised the author for bringing to attention the little-publicized injustice toward Italian Americans during World War II. Finally, The National Italian American Foundation News Monthly published a feature article on Penny From Heaven, saying that though the novel is intended for young adults, “the story is enjoyable for all.”