Josiah's Reviews > Surviving the Applewhites

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan
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Aug 28, 11

Read from August 25 to 27, 2011

When reading a Newbery book, I generally enter into the experience with higher expectations than I have for most other books. That gold or silver medal on the cover, letting me know that the ALA Newbery committee for that year considered the novel I'm holding in my hands to be worthy of mention alongside such classics as Charlotte's Web, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Number the Stars, is perhaps the most important external sign I look for in the books that I read.

Surviving the Applewhites isn't a typical Newbery book, but it is a nice, uncomplicated story. A twelve-or-thirteen-year-old juvenile offender named Jake has bounced between several schools recently, the adults at those schools never really giving him a chance to show that he's not as bad as the official reports make him out to be, but now he has landed in a school completely different from any of the others in which he had been briefly enrolled. The homeschool "academy" run by the Applewhites is as relaxed and freeform as a legitimate school can get, with students allowed to choose their own courses of study and go about the process of learning however they wish. The Applewhites are an artistic family that doesn't much believe in the idea of limitations being set on personal creativity, and so those who attend the school (mostly the family's own children, with the exception now of Jake) are pretty much free to do whatever they want (within reason, of course).

It doesn't take long at all (actually, I was surprised it didn't take longer) for Jake to begin showing himself to be much more than the brooding delinquent that the judicial system had labeled him. The Applewhite family may be undeniably eccentric and susceptible to taking on big, crazy projects at the drop of a hat, but beneath it all is an extraordinarily close family unit (even though they may not seem very close to an outside observer), and each one of them as individuals are worth getting to know. For Jake, settling in as a temporary member of the Applewhite family means becoming like an unofficial older brother to four-year-old Destiny (a boy, despite the name), and taking over responsibility for Winston, the family dog, who apparently is under the impression that he is now Jake's pet. Being adored and admired by anyone is a totally new feeling for Jake, and maybe more than any other reason, it is the affection of Destiny and the dog that help Jake finally turn around his life.

Surviving the Applewhites is a low-pressure and comfortable sort of story, noticeably without any incidents that are likely to leave sear marks in your heart or make your blood boil. It is an interesting book, though, engagingly written and featuring a couple of characters that I really liked. However, I must admit that for a year of children's literature in which Blue Eyes Better by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, What Would Joey Do? by Jack Gantos, Loser by Jerry Spinelli and Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech were not recognized by Newbery, I can't clearly see the rationale by which Surviving the Applewhites was named a Newbery honor book. The story's appeal is easy to see, though, and I would not be at all surprised if one day author Stephanie S. Tolan were to write a sequel.
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