HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Surviving the Applewhites
Author: Stephanie S. Tolan
Cover Illustrator: Laurie Keller
Publisher: HarperCollins, reprinted in 2004
Related website: www.harperchildrens.com (publisher)
Language level: 3
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Said to be for ages 8 and up, but I would suggest at least ages 13 and up
Rating: 3 stars (FAIR)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Tolan, Stephanie S. Surviving the Applewhites (published in 2002 by HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10019). Jake Semple is a twelve-or-thirteen-year-old budding juvenile delinquent with all black “goth” clothes, a silver ring through one eyebrow, numerous earrings, and scarlet spiked hair; also he smokes cigarettes and swears a lot. He has been kicked out of the public schools in the whole state of Rhode Island and is rumored to have burnt one of them down. His parents are in jail for growing marijuana in their basement, so he has been sent to live with his grandfather Henry Dugan in rural Traybridge, NC. But after a reign of terror at Traybridge Middle School he is expelled and sent to the “Creative Academy” which is what the Applewhite family calls their homeschool program at Wit’s End, the sixteen-acre farm on which they live. Randolph Applewhite is a temperamental play director and his often oblivious wife Sibyl Jameson is the author of a mystery series about Petunia Grantham but is trying to write the Great American Novel. Their four children are Cordelia who wants to dance, the elusive Hal who doesn’t really know what he wants, E. D. who is Jake’s age and just wants to be normal, and four-year-old Destiny who talks all the time. Rounding out the clan is Grandpa Zedediah and Uncle Archie who make artistic but useless furniture and Aunt Lucille who is a poet. The children are homeschooled using a radical unschooling method.
Randolph is asked to direct The Sound of Music for the Traybridge Little Theater. The whole family joins in to help, and, after hearing Jake sing, Randolph casts him as Rolf, Liesl’s boyfriend who joins the S.S.. Finally Jake has something to be proud of and look forward to. However, in a casting dispute, the chairwoman of the Traybridge Little Theater cancels the show. What will happen to the production? Is there some way to save it? And what will happen to Jake? I first heard about this book in 2003 from Ann Lahrson Fisher who was doing “News and Commentary” for Home Education Magazine and wrote, “Have you ever wondered about the dearth of homeschooled kids on the pages of fiction? Where is the giggle-fest of predicaments that star homeschooled kids, stories written to delight homeschooled readers? Wonder no more—the Applewhites are here! Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan is a Newbery Honor Book.” The Applewhite family, though somewhat eccentric and some might even think dysfunctional, is rather lovable in an oddball sort of way, and Jake does end up learning some important lessons about life and about himself, so there is a happy ending. However, not everyone will appreciate all aspects of the story. Traditional homeschoolers may not think that the picture of the completely unstructured and chaotic way in which the Applewhites run their Creative Academy is a very favorable view of homeschooling in general.
I am not an unschooler, nor do I necessarily encourage unschooling. However, I have known several unschoolers, and they have generally done well in achieving the education of their children, so this is not one of the aspects which bothers me. The Applewhites, at least Aunt Lucille, seem steeped in New Age religion with her zen, meditation guru, and talking to nature spirits. Someone else suggested that perhaps most of the adults are too self-absorbed and engrossed in their own lives to have much involvement in the children’s. As to language, Jake and others are said to swear and curse several times, though amazingly enough very little bad language is actually used. Jake wonders why E. D. is “pi**ed off,” and something is said to come “like bats out of he**.” However, one’s opinion of the entire book may hinge on whether one finds a great deal of humor in teenage Jake’s teaching little Destiny all about the meaning and usage of “the F word.” The actual term is never found in the book, but it is referred to in that way a number of times. The rest of the story is well-written and interesting to read even if it is a bit off-beat, but there are still at least a few of us left who do not find this sort of thing very amusing. The book is certainly not all bad, but as a result of this, I would not really encourage my children to read it. Christian parents would probably feel quite annoyed if their eight-year-old comes up while reading the book and asks, “Mommy, what is the F word?” The fact that a story which talks about using “the F word” won a Newbery Honor award doesn’t really surprise me because that kind of thing seems to be right down the American Library Association’s alley.