Sunday, October 13, 2013

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan

Image from
HarperCollins, 2002

E.D. Applewhite can’t believe it. Not only does she have to deal with being the untalented member of the endlessly talented, dedicated, and artistic Applewhite family, she also has to deal with a known juvenile delinquent! Along with E.D. and her siblings, he’ll be a student of the Creative Academy, the homeschool the Applewhite’s have created to allow their children complete artistic freedom. 13 year old Jake Semple doesn’t want to be there either, but he has no other choice. He’s been kicked out school after school and his family just wants to be rid of him. But soon, no matter how hard E.D. and Jake resist, Jake is absorbed into the Applewhite way of life and living. Over the course of just a few months, the two reluctant schoolmates find themselves raising butterflies, herding rampant goats, learning to meditate, and putting their hearts and souls into an untraditionally wonderful production of The Sound of Music. Jake and E.D. might manage to survive the Applewhites, but they’ll never be the same!

Named a Newbery Honor book, this fast paced story is written in third person. The narrative alternates between Jake and E.D.’s perspectives, allowing the reader to understand the motivations of the two protagonists. The Applewhite family and their extended family are eccentric characters that brim with artistic passion and temperament. Although they are larger than life in many ways, Tolan is able to ground the story in reality. Tackling life with passion is a major theme. Jake begins his stay with the Applewhites with absolutely no interest in anything in life. By the end of the book, he not only sees the passion of those around him, but resolves to live his life with the same vigor. Jake’s gradual transformation, the result of introspection, is reflected in his outward appearance and behaviors. A great recommendation for intelligent and creative readers who have read a lot and are looking for lesser known, but equally stellar, books.

As someone who was homeschooled K-12, I’m always looking for realistic depictions of homeschoolers in children’s literature. The benefits of artistic freedom, independence, and creativity that often come with homeschooling are demonstrated, however Tolan’s tone never becomes didactic or holier-than-thou. It's refreshing to find a story that doesn't involve a homeschooler learning about regular schooling.

On a side note, I’m a former stage manager. So it thrilled me to bits to find E.D, a literary character who shares my love for organization and order and puts those talents to use as a stage manager!

Read the first chapter and get pulled in by the wonderfully eccentric Applewhite family.

*The musical The Sound of Music, is a major plot point in the book. Take a break about halfway through reading the book to watch the movie. Bonus points if you can take your kids to see a live performance. This would be a great book to read if your local high school or community theatre is putting on the show.

*Check out the discussion guide provided by Scholastic.

*Read more about Jake and the Applewhites in the sequel:

*More middle grade books by Tolan:

After Iris by Natasha Farrant
Casson Family Series by Hilary McKay
Savvy by Ingrid Law

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


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