Contrived is the word that kept lingering in my mind as I read Surviving the Applewhites. I didn’t want that to be the word in my head but I couldn’t shake it off. Everything about this novel just seemed forced to me — from the main character juvenile delinquent who “finds his true self” when he is sent to a non-traditional “school” run by the nutty Applewhite family, to the plot device of the production of a musical that brings the whole family and assorted hangers-on together.
Normally, I would have given up on the book early and moved on to something better. But this book was presented to every sixth grader in our school district at a recent Literacy Event (in which the author came to talk) and at a school meeting the other day, some of the folks who planned the event at our high school (which was running the whole thing as part of a regional Community Read) were touting what a great book it was and how their own students could not stop reading it. OK, so maybe this is one of those books where my own interests as a reader diverge from the interests of my students.
But I don’t think so.
I mean, I wanted to like Surviving the Applewhites (a Newbery Honor Book, apparently) by Stephanie Tolan. I really did. I wanted to know that the book that I was putting into their hands (the kids who did not go to the literacy event got their books on Friday so I was in the role of “book deliverer”) would keep them engaged for the coming week of vacation. I have my doubts.
The thing is, the premise of the story has great merit. When Jake Semple is introduced — following yet another expulsion and a deep history of bad behavior — you think, now here is an interesting character. But Tolan goes all wishy-washy on us, and forces the “change” in Jake that allows him to soften. If you know any tough kids in your life, you know it takes more than a dog wagging its tale and a little kid tagging along with them to change. I just couldn’t buy it.
And the Applewhite family, along with having too many characters to first keep track of, is full of stereotypes, so much so that when we learn that spiritual Swami is arriving soon at the house, I just shook my head and knew he would be a gentle soul who would probably offer a sense of calm in the midst of chaos, and maybe introduce them to Indian food. Bingo. That all happened.
The biggest disappointment, for me, was E.D. — the smart Applewhite daughter whose narrative voice forms the other arc of the story (in counter to Jake’s). Here is this girl who thrives on order living in a family of nuts, and there is so much Tolan could have done to flesh out this wonderful thinker …. instead, she is handed the reins as play manager. Oh, E.D. — you deserved so much more!
In the back of my mind, what I was really thinking was: why didn’t our school district choose Wonder by RJ Palacio as the book to hand out? Now, there is a book that would change lives and alter perceptions and get kids talking.
Peace (in the reading),