Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review: Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie S. Tolan

...The old man grabbed his hand and shook it in both of his, nearly crushing Jake's fingers in an amazingly powerful grip. "Welcome to Wit's End - Furniture Factory, Gallery, Studio, Goat Compound, and Creative Academy," Zedediah Applewhite said.

When the old man let go, Jake shook his hand to make sure the blood could still get to the tips of his fingers. Then he said a few of his favorite words, just loud enough to be sure they were heard.

Zedediah Applewhite didn't so much as blink. "You ought to spend a little time with Cordelia," he said. "She's taught my parrot the French for that. Spanish, Italian, and German, too."

Jake Semple curses, smokes, and has various piercings, with hair dyed scarlet red and styled into points all over his head. He also has quite a rep for a thirteen-year-old: he's been kicked out of every public school in Rhode Island, and only lasted three weeks before Traybridge Middle School - in North Carolina - kicked him out, too. Which is how he ends up slouching on the front porch of almost-thirteen-year-old order-and-structure-loving E.D Applewhite, in the middle of September, blowing smoke in her face.

Jake is about to join Creative Academy - the Applewhite's homeschool, which is the only place left that will take him. E.D. and Jake soon find themselves "cooperatively grouped," an experimental first for the family's independent-learning-focused beliefs, and a situation that neither is pleased with. As they each try in their own way to navigate through the creative chaos that is the Applewhite family, not one person's life is left untouched...or unchanged.

For Teachers and Librarians:
Surviving the Applewhites is about finding your way in this world, but more specifically: finding out who you are and where your place is in this world, instead of letting the world make you fit what it wants you to be.

Guidance counselors will love this book and the myriad possibilities to explore with their students: It's about kids (and adults) acting and interacting, exploring, pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box - sometimes way outside their comfort zones, and coming to surprising yet pleasing conclusions, and learning new things about themselves and others - whether they've known each other for just a few weeks, or for a lifetime. It's about cooperation, working toward a common goal, but using each person's unique abilities as advantages to be celebrated, instead of obstacles to be quashed, in order to come together and drive toward that shared goal.

Arts teachers of all disciplines will enjoy using this book to help their students explore and discuss various artistic venues - woodworking, theater, set design, dance, acting, singing (both well and badly, yet appreciating both), painting, writing, and many more.

Classroom teachers of all disciplines will rejoice at finding a book that makes their students laugh out loud, think twice before judging "the new kid" and those kids they've known since forever and even themselves, consider trying new things, and groan with disappointment when time's up and they have to close the book, because they really, really want to find out what happens next.

For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Family, and community, and acceptance are three very strong themes running through Surviving the Applewhites. Until Jake's appearance in the family, E.D. often felt like a fish out of water. She craves schedules, routine, order, and consistency, but she is surrounded by a family of super creative types that often forget to buy the groceries when it's their turn, and to whom "curriculum" is merely a suggestion to be pondered, but ultimately pushed aside in order to follow the whims of their creative and (to E.D.) willy-nilly pursuit of each one's particular art focus of the moment.

Jake, however, had been subjected to nothing but structure, routine, strict schedules, and harsh scrutiny that most certainly did not work for him, judging by his experiences up until the day he stood slouched on the Applewhite front porch, awaiting the beginning of life in Creative Academy.

Despite their opposing personalities, they share a common concern: neither kid feels as though they are understood, and neither kid feels like they "fit" in this world. Yet somehow, through the seeming calamity that is Applewhite life, each discovers something about themselves: Jake - that he has strengths and talents that others appreciate and which he never knew were there before, and that he is important to people close to him and cared about by them, just for being who he truly is inside, and E.D. - that her creative, free-flowing family needs precisely the organizational and system-loving skills she has had all along, and that her love of structure has as much value as the others' love of the unconventional.

For the Kids:
Surviving the Applewhites is a book that will make you laugh out loud with all of the crazy stuff in order-loving E.D. Applewhite's very crazy family: a pet parrot that can curse in at least four languages, a rescued goat named Wolfie that is "hostility personified," an aunt who insists that she converses with the nature spirits in her garden, one teenage brother who never comes out of his room, another very young brother who talks incessantly, a tempermental, furniture-making dad, a best-selling author mom, an older sister who glides between dance and art and flower-arranging or whatever direction her art muse points her in, and a wise old grandfather who seems to take it all in stride. Add to the mix one Jake Semple, a kid who's been kicked out of every school in Rhode Island, and has a bad reputation with the looks to match: lots of piercings, hair dyed fire red and gelled into get the picture.

Of course, E.D. and Jake do NOT hit it off, and of course, E.D. and Jake are paired in a group to study together in the Applewhite's homeschool, Creative Academy, which is so not what either one of them wants. Will E.D.'s carefully self-structured curriculum - and her sanity - survive being saddled with this "bad kid?" Will Jake find a way to make this last chance work? And just how many swear words does that parrot know, anyhow?

There's only one way to find out...

For Everyone Else:
Surviving the Applewhites is a book that will appeal to a wide audience: elementary-age kids, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and yes, adults, too. Plenty of laugh-out-loud moments mixed in with situations that will challenge you to push the limits of what you think you know to be true, make for a book that's hard to put down, and a story that sticks in your head well after the last page has been turned.

Wrapping Up:
Surviving the Applewhites - Find it, read it. You'll be glad you did.

Title: Surviving the Applewhites
Author: Stephanie S. Tolan
Jacket Art: Hala Witwer
Jacket Design: Henrietta Stern
Pages: 216
Reading Level: Ages 9-12 through Young Adult
Publisher and Date: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002
Edition: 1st
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $15.99
ISBN-10: 0-06-623602-9
ISBN: 0-06-623603-7 (library binding)


  1. this was really a great work of art!it explains to kids that everyone can start as something and change along the way.Sometimes you find your true talnet in the strangest should try your hardest at everyhting because you never know when a life changing event is coming your way.

  2. Well said, Brielle! Thanks for visiting.

  3. i read this book but i dident know what the plot was

    1. Hi, Josh. Thank you for visiting! Sometimes the main plot of a book is not easy to figure out, especially in a book like this with so many different things going on.

      Up there in the review, under the "Teachers and Librarians" heading, I wrote this: "Surviving the Applewhites is about finding your way in this world, but more specifically: finding out who you are and where your place is in this world, instead of letting the world make you fit what it wants you to be."

      After I read this book, that's the general feeling I got when I thought about what Surviving the Applewhites is all about. I wonder, since you've read the book, too, does that help you figure out what you think the plot may be?

  4. I read this book when i was in eight grade as part of our classroom assignmnet. I think we read from the book outloud in class every other day. Anyways i love this book! *sigh* great memories from that year. At the end of the book we had this really huge test on it and with no surprise I aced it. :)

    1. Hi, Anonymous. So glad you enjoyed Surviving the Applewhites. And congratulations on acing that test!

    2. I am soooo going to use your quotes for my project!!!

    3. this book sets a terrible example for kids as it teaches them to smoke and curse, my son is now cursing

    4. Hello, Anonymous. So sorry to hear your son is cursing, but he couldn't have learned any of the words he's using from reading Surviving the Applewhites. No curse words are used in this book. It does say Jake and the parrot curse, but it doesn't say which words they use. As to teaching kids to smoke, Jake is described as smoking, yes. But, the Applewhites actively discourage smoking in the story. And ED tells Jake in no uncertain terms that "Wit's End is a smoke-free environment." Jake's cursing, smoking, and other bad behaviors do take a turn toward the positive during his life with the Applewhites. There really is a lot to like and learn from in this book: Good comes out of what at first appears to be bad. Past negative behaviors and situations can be and are overcome. People can and do change, despite how they may have started out.

      I do like this book very much, which is why I reviewed it here. And so, in the interest of presenting an unbiased view as well, here is a link to Common Sense Media's review of the book:

      I hope you find it helpful.

  5. Great book, thank you, Kim Wheedleton!


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