Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie S. Tolan
E.D.’s Aunt Lucille was a poet and had been conducting a workshop at Traybridge Middle School when Jake was kicked out. This whole terrible idea had been hers. She’d told Mr. Dugan about the Creative Academy, which was what E.D.’s father had named the Applewhite home school. Only Aunt Lucille, whose view of life was almost pathologically sunny, would get the idea that after an entire state had admitted it couldn’t cope with the kid and after Traybridge Middle School had been defeated in less than a month, the Applewhites should take him in…But somehow Aunt Lucille had convinced everybody else. E.D. had been the only family member to vote against letting Jake Semple join them.
Jake pulled a cigarette out of a pack in his T-shirt pocket.
“Better not light that thing,” she said. “Wit’s End is a smoke-free environment.”
The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow plastic lighter. “You can’t have a smoke-free environment outdoors,” he said.
“We can have it anywhere we want — this is our property, all sixteen acres of it.”
Jake looked her square in the eye and lit the cigarette. He took a long drag and blew the smoke directly into her face so that she had to close her eyes and hold her breath to keep from choking on it. Then he said one of Paulie’s favorite phrases. No one had managed to break Grandpa’s adopted parrot of swearing. E.D. suspected that they wouldn’t have any better luck with Jake Semple.
Surviving the Applewhites, which won a Newbery Honor 10 years ago, made me laugh out loud — okay, snort! — repeatedly with its story of the offbeat, chaotic, artistic Applewhite clan, their highly unconventional unschooling life at Wit’s End, and their collision course with juvenile delinquent Jake Semple.
Jake is taken on by the Applewhites after being kicked out of every school in his home state. With his purple spiked hair and penchant for burning down schools he doesn’t like, Jake is a kid with an enormously bad attitude who smugly assumes these Applewhites won’t be able to handle him for more than about five minutes. Turns out, he’s the one who will have to survive them!
The Applewhite clan includes Randolph Applewhite, mercurial theatrical director; Sybil Jameson, absent-minded mystery writer; Aunt Lucille, a poet with a Feng Shui take on life; four-year-old Destiny, a child being raised with insatiable curiosity and zero structure; and that’s just for starters. The amount of chaos that can erupt from this volatile mixture of personalities is more than any of Jake’s dreams, and that’s saying something.
Only E.D., 12 years old, seems to be lacking that artsy Applewhite gene. Order, discipline, structure — these are music to her ears, but a strain she rarely hears. Now she’s supposed to mentor Jake in establishing his own educational goals — life is not fair. Can E.D. find her own way, let alone Jake’s, in this creative soup? Will the Applewhites survive Jake’s destructive intents? More to the point, will Jake survive the carefree chaos of this family?
Stephanie Nolan has written a genius, hilarious story, with some really sweet underlying ideas about belonging, individuality, and the ability of humans to bloom and flourish when they are favorably judged and supported in creative endeavors. Her characters are utterly unique, and quite easy to fall in love with — each crazy one of them.
In 2012, her sequel, Applewhites at Wit’s End, was published. Taking place a year later, we see the existence of Wit’s End threatened through financial mismanagement — a side effect of this wacky bunch of artists paying no attention to such things. Randolph comes up with a stunning money-making plan — a summer creativity camp — and enlists the entire family plus Jake in the effort to save the farm. Of course, things don’t run entirely smoothly, but it’s the sinister stranger lurking about the place that really spells trouble. Who is he? Why is he spying on them? Can the Applewhites successfully run this camp, or will they be forced to sell Wit’s End after all?
It’s a great story, not quite as humorous as the first, featuring more of a mysterious sense and a tiny dash of romance. I enjoyed it, but very much recommend reading the original volume first to get a full-blown, hair-raising introduction to the stars of the show. We come to care about the Applewhites through the first book, which gives purpose to the second.
Excellent, fun reads for ages 10 and up.
Here are Amazon links for both volumes:
Surviving the Applewhites
Applewhites at Wit’s End
[…] out of some sort of dire necessity, but soon enough they return to “real” school. (Surviving the Applewhites is a delightful exception.) I applaud Farrar Straus Giroux and Jonathan Bean for publishing a new […]