Penelope is a white student at Reardan who becomes one of Junior’s closest friends, as well as his quasi-girlfriend. When Junior first meets her, she’s unimpressed, but he eventually wins her over. Their friendship is solidified when Junior discovers that Penelope is bulimic, and despite his awkwardness, offers her some kind words that she desperately needs to hear.
Penelope is a popular, confident girl who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her bluntness can come across as a bit unkind at times, but despite her lack of tact, she’s a very caring and empathetic person. When she discovers that Junior is poor, she is touched by the struggles he’s faced and offers to help. She, along with Gordy, Roger, and other classmates, stands up for Junior when he is unfairly criticized by a teacher for missing school to attend multiple funerals. And when Junior’s sister, Mary, dies suddenly, Penelope weeps for him, showing the depth of her empathy as well as the strong bond she shares with Junior.
Junior and Penelope find common ground in the limitations they both face in life: Junior, because of his race and class, and Penelope, because of her gender, as well as their mutual dream of escape. While Penelope’s outer beauty is what initially draws Junior to her, it’s clear that, in Reardan, her femininity also imposes strict limitations on her freedom. Her father is a racist and a chauvinist, and his expectation is that his daughter will marry and settle down quickly upon graduating high school. But Penelope is intelligent and talented, and she dreams of traveling the world and attending university to become an architect. For Junior, finding a kindred spirit during such a lonely time in his life is a silver lining in an otherwise often difficult and tragic life story: “We were supposed to be happy with our limitations. But there was no way Penelope and I were going to sit still. Nope, we both wanted to fly.”