My dear friend Lisa, of Explayration, brought a bag of books for the kids a while back. She was particularly excited to read Surviving the Applewhites, one of her childhood favorites. I can see why she liked it so much!
The Story: Jake Semple has been kicked out of every school he has ever been in, and is suspected of burning down one of them. His last chance before juvenile hall is the unorthodox unschooling at Wit's End, the domain of the Applewhite family. The Applewhites are, as a whole, a very artistic and free-spirited family. They are comprised of a famous author, a poet, modern furniture makers, a dancer, a theatre director, an inquisitive little boy, a mysterious and rarely seen teenaged hermit, and... E.D, the grounded, organized, and more conventional one. She is saddled with Jake, because everyone else is doing their own thing, and they are not in the least able to handle an unruly teenaged boy. E.D. isn't really, either, but at least her schooling is more structured than any of the others, and he certainly isn't able to be left to himself yet. She is not happy about this responsibility, but begrudgingly takes it on. He is no happier, but he figures it is better than juvie. Slowly, something begins to happen to Jake. He begins to care. He gets a part in Randolph Applewhite's grandiose production of The Sound of Music. He is basically adopted by both the family's Bassett hound, and the youngest, non-stop talking youngest Applewhite, Destiny. When the production of The Sound of Music is moved to the Applewhite estate, the whole family bands together to make it happen, with E.D. as the ever capable stage manager. They pull off what no one thought was possible - a multi-cultural rendition of The Sound of Music, in a barn at Wit's End, accompanied by an accordion playing over-zealous would be television producer who has moved in with the Applewhites, along with the "kitchen guru," Gavindaswami, who makes refreshments for the whole clan, whilst imparting wisdom along with his spicy curries. The other impossible thing they pull off is that Jake Semple becomes more than the teenaged delinquent ne'rdowell that everyone assumed him to be.
The Good: The chapters rotate perspective between Jake and E.D. and it is very well done. The characters are believable, and you find yourself rooting for Jake's transformation. Evalina and I particularly enjoyed her search for the great spangled fritillary, the last butterfly needed to finish her self-imposed butterfly curriculum, along with Jake's hatching of black swallowtails, partially for Destiny's benefit. The growth seen in Jake doesn't seem forced, but very organic and natural. I wish that I could have seen their production of The Sound of Music!
The Bad: Some of the things Jake says and does (especially at the beginning of the book) may be a bit shocking.. but it's worth it to see where he ends up. The Applewhites are a scattered bunch, and they often leave Jake or E.D. in charge of the 4-year old Destiny, which is a bit disconcerting!
The Verdict: Absolutely worth a read. It didn't win the Newberry Prize for nothing! It is recommended for grades 5-8, but as a read-along, it was fine for Evalina, who is in 3rd grade. It was funny and touching and exciting and just all around a great book. I had never heard of it before, so I am very grateful to Lisa for bringing it to my attention! And now, I'm bringing it to your attention... so don't miss it!