I opened Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan, a 2003 Newbery honor book, not really expecting to like it. Something about both the cover and the plot premise– juvenile delinquent “survives” living with a homeschooling family–always turned me off. I’m a little bit sensitive about how homeschooling is represented by the world at large, so I’m sure that played a part in my hesitance over this title. For at least the first two-thirds of the story, I read it with interest but no differently than I’ve read any other mediocre sort of story I’ve ever read. The juvenile delinquent, Jake Semple, didn’t really seem bad enough to me; in fact, I’m pretty sure Tolan wrote him that way on purpose. Still, knowing young teens like I do, he seemed a little too misunderstood. The Applewhites, the artsy and eccentric homeschooling family, seemed a little too eccentric and a little too stereotypical–living on a compound (artist colony? commune?), paying little attention to the children, etc. Color me cynical.
And then the play happened. Part of the plot revolves around the fact that one of the Applewhites, a temperamental play director, has taken on a community production of The Sound of Music. The production is cancelled when he crosses one of the board members of the community theater group, and the Applewhites have to pull together to make the production happen (in their barn!). Maybe it’s because The Sound of Music was the soundtrack of my life this week as I carted my children around in our DVD-equipped minivan (yes, we’ve succumbed). Maybe it’s because E.D. (Edith Wharton) Applewhite is teaching her younger brother, Destiny, about the life cycle of the butterfly throughout the whole novel, and what do we have on our own kitchen counter but a butterfly house with three painted lady pupae occupants? Whatever it is, it grew on me. By the end of the novel, I was cheering for the Applewhites and their passion, their zest for life and learning. (I was also wondering if the Project Based Homeschooling folks have ever read this and if they might consider it a good snapshot, albeit a fictional one, of this sort of learning. I’m intrigued mightily by it and this novel confirmed what I think about it.) Even E.D., the one Applewhite kid who wishes someone would give an (apparent) care about her education, has risen to the occasion by the end of the novel and cast her self-made scope and sequence for her own education aside in favor of doing what she’s really good at as a part of the family theater project.
No, this novel isn’t a fantastic piece of literature. I’m still not convinced it’s Newbery material. However, it is a fun story, and it definitely provides an alternate view of learning and education that is worthy of consideration. I’m glad I finally read it. (HarperCollins, 2002)