Surviving the Applewhites

Image result for surviving the applewhitesAnother gem from the Newbery Honor books, Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan is an entertaining, funny novel about a delinquent boy who, having been kicked out of school, is forced to be homeschooled by the Applewhite family, themselves an eclectic bunch of misfits.  In fact, there are so many characters that in the beginning it’s hard to keep them all straight!

Destiny, the youngest Applewhite, is 4 years old and ends up idolizing Jake Semple, the delinquent boy, along with the basset hound, Winston.  Both are attached to Jake’s hip despite his disapproval.  E.D, the closest to Jake’s age and the one put in charge of helping him in his education, is the only normal Applewhite.  Studious and industrious, she loves learning and doing the right thing.  Her mother is a successful writer.  Her father a successful director.  Her brother, Hal, is a recluse and never leaves his room except in the middle of the night to eat.  Her sister, Cordelia, is a composer and choreographer.  Her grandpa and uncle make furniture.  Her aunt is a poet.

When her father’s current production of the Sound of Music loses its stage, the Applewhites come together and use their talents to save the play by hosting the play in their barn.  E.D. becomes the stage manager.  Her grandpa and uncle make the stage.  Her brother Hal leaves his room to paint.  Destiny and Jake both are cast in the play and Jake begins to realize he has talent as well.  Her mother and aunt make the costumes.

Throw in a zany wanna-be-film-director and an Indian chef (“passion is necessary to all of life”) along with colorful characters from the small North Carolina town and you have a delightful tale sure to delight and entertain.  The character arc of both E.D. and Jake are great with both learning life lessons, discovering what life is about and what gives them job, and learning how all things are possible.  Highly recommended.  Great for kids of all ages (there’s no love interest or any talk of attraction).  Awesome book showing a family coming together in times of crisis.  Purely a joy to read!


Image result for savvyA Newbery Honor Winner for 2009, Savvy by Ingrid Law is the tale of a family who have amazing abilities and have to learn to control them.

Upon turning 13, every Beaumont gets a savvy, a special ability.  Mibs is sure her savvy can wake things (including people up).  Just in time because her father was just involved in a car accident, leaving him unconscious in the hospital.  Convinced she can wake him up, Mibs hitches a ride on a bus along with her brothers and two friends, Will and Bobbi.

Upon being discovered, they convince the driver, Lester, to take them to Salina to the hospital–AFTER he finishes his deliveries of bibles.  This leads to one chaotic adventure after another as all the Beaumonts struggle to control (and figure out) their savvy’s.  It turns out Mib’s savvy is not waking things up but hearing ink (tattoos and such) reveal others’ thoughts.  Overwhelmed at times, Mibs causes a ruckus that leads to punches between Will and her brother, Fish, who can control the weather and a scene in a diner where they pick up another hitch-hiker named Lill.

Finally arriving in Salina with a police escort, Mibs is convinced she can still wake up her dad–and she does.  By telling him he never gives up and he has to wake up.  Her dad is not the same–severe head injury has left him with memory problems–but Mibs learns about family, love, being a teenager, and being happy with the life she has.  “When life takes a turn and you can’t step back…all you can do is keep moving forward and remember what you’ve learned” because “the outcome of a choice is almost as hard to predict or to control as a new savvy.”

“You never can tell when a bad thing might make a good thing happen.”

Great coming-of-age tale with tons of action and adventure from the heart.  Life lessons for kids who have great hearts, but still have a lot to learn.  Fantastic tale about your lot in life, accepting it, and finding contentment in it.  Highly recommended!

The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D Schmidt

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D Schmidt is a Newbery Honor Book for 2010.  And for good reason.

We follow a seventh-grade boy named Holling Hoodhood in 1967 during the Vietnam War on Long Island.  He is the only Presbyterian in his class so he has to stay at school on Wednesdays while the rest of his class leave early for Catholic school or Jewish school.  His teacher, Mrs. Baker, is resentful.  She makes Holling clean the chalkboard and clean out the coat closet.  He thinks his teacher is out to get him.

She assigns him extra work as well which include reading the great plays of William Shakespeare.  This leads to him performing in the Christmas performance of The Tempest.  He begins to memorize whole passages of Shakespeare and learn lessons from the plays as well.  His father is overbearing and is very self-absorbed with making sure his architecture business grows and succeeds.  He is also convinced Holling will succeed him in the future.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny as Holling deals with his Tempest costume of yellow tights and white feathers on his butt.  He deals with a bully and pet rats he accidentally let loose in the school.  He learns it’s more about giving than spending money on a date.  Mrs. Baker takes him on a field trip to study architecture and Holling sees buildings and the history they hold for the first time.

There is a very moving scene in the book where Holling rescues his older sister who ran off with her boyfriend and realizes it’s a mistake.  “The first time that you know you really care about something is when you think about it not being there, and…the emptiness is as much inside you as outside you.”  We get to see Holling grow in maturity and into his own as he realizes how much he loves his family and friends around him and realizes there’s more to life than architecture.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  Historically accurate and entertaining I haven’t read this good of a book in a long time.  I read it outloud to all of my kids and they all loved it!

“Sometimes the real world is like Hamlet.  A little scared.  Unsure.  A little angry.  Wishing you could fix something you can’t.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

After reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Meant as a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn instead went on to become a stand-alone book and in fact a classic of literature.  Where Tom Sawyer is just a very well-written story of a boy and his antics, Huck Finn is a story of a boy who grows up and learns the power of friendship when he decides to help his friend, Jim, escape when he’s a slave.  Huck Finn tackles head-on the evils of slavery through the eyes of a 12 year-old boy which puts all the adults to shame.

Set in the 1850’s, Huck Finn picks up right where Tom Sawyer left off:  Huck and Tom have found a treasure trove and Huck has been adopted by Miss Watson.  Tom is still up to his same ol’ antics of boyhood fun.  However, Huck’s father shows up in town (the fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri) wanting Huck’s money.  He’s a drunk and a child abuser and he ends up kidnapping Huck Finn while he fights the courts for Huck’s money.  Huck can’t take it anymore so he fakes his own death by killing a pig, spreading its blood everywhere, and running off to an island in the Mississippi (the same island where Tom Sawyer ran off to for his adventures as well).  Here, he meets Jim, a slave who has run away from Miss Watson when he heard he was going to be sold.

Huck and Jim team up–mainly because Huck is lonely and doesn’t want to run away alone and because Jim needs help.  They make a raft and set off down the Mississippi River, where their adventures begin.  The plan had been to make for Cairo, Illinois, which sits right where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet and head up the Ohio River so Jim can be free.  Instead, they end up missing the Ohio River when a fog and a storm arise so they are now floating down into slavery territory.

Here, Huck battles whether or not to turn Jim in.  He feels guilty for helping a slave escape, especially since it’s Miss Watson’s slave and she needs the money she was going to make from his sale.  Yet, he’s torn with loyalty to Jim because Jim helps Huck time and time again and all Jim wants to do is get free and then buy his wife and kids’ freedom.

Huck says, “I feel bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong….but a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show”.  Huck says he’d feel bad either way–bad if he had given Jim up and bad if he hadn’t so he sticks with what’s easier.

Jim and Huck run across two liars and frauds known as the king and the duke that make for some of the funniest scenes in the novel as they try to rip people off of money.  In the end though, Huck foils them and steals all the money and places it in a dead man’s coffin.

Some people here think, “Why does Huck stay with these people?”  Well, Huck answers this himself, “I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.”  Let’s not forget Huck is just a boy here which it is hard to forget when you are reading this and the king and duke are adults.

The climax of the novel is where Huck grows up and changes.  The duke and the king conspire to sell Jim as a runaway slave, which they do.  Here, Huck reasons it’s best then to tell the truth so Jim can at least go home to a nice family to be a slave with.  He writes a letter to Miss Watson to free his conscience; however, he gets to thinking what a good person Jim is and tears up the letter, saying “I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  All right, then, I’ll go to hell”.  He decides to rescue Jim and steal him out of slavery forever.

The rest of the book is rip-roaring good time as Mr. Mark Twain brings Tom Sawyer back into the picture and they end up spending the rest of the book “stealing Jim out of slavery” from Tom’s aunt who had ended up buying Jim from the king and the duke.  Tom concocts all these things Jim must do as to break out of prison “proper” and ends up causing havoc with his aunt and in the end Tom ends up being shot as the escape unfolds and he’s bragging about it!

Spoiler for conclusion:  we discover at the end that Huck’s father has died and Jim has been free for two months because Miss Watson died and set him free.  Tom pays Jim for all the fun they had with him at his expense and Tom’s Aunt Sally wants to adopt Huck.

Huck concludes about Jim: “I thought he had a good heart in him and was a good man, the first time I see him.”  This is the first time Huck does not call him a “nigger”.  Mark Twain took heavy criticism for using this word, which he does over and over again in this book.  But it made it’s point:  it’s the exact use of the derogatory word that proves the power of man’s ignorance towards one another and in the end, the power of Huck’s words ring out as readers discover the same thing: Jim is a man and worthy of his freedom and in fact deserves his freedom like everyone else.

A classic of literature everyone should read, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a powerful example of discovering humanity, great fun in its antics and adventures, and a book that’ll leave you in tears and laughing all at the same time.

What I love about this book is it transports you:  you get to see through the eyes of a 12 year old boy what it was like to be a boy in the 1850’s.  How it was possible for a boy to float on a raft down the Mississippi. How a boy could survive on his own by fishing and hunting.  How a boy walking around a strange town by himself didn’t cause any alarm.  How a boy could go missing and his family didn’t freak out about it until 2 or 3 days had passed.  How a boy played all day long, entertaining himself by thinking up adventure stories and walking miles and miles in the woods. How a boy could use a canoe by himself and take off and explore caves.

None of this could happen in the twenty-first century in America at least.  I love history and I’m always fascinated by the change in the times.  There was something magical about the freedom people had 160 years ago and it’s why Americans love the Wild West stories.  There’s also dangers like when Huck falls in with the king and the duke and is at their mercy; yet there is an innocence that we all yearn for and for the most part it existed in everyone in the 1800’s.  And books such as Huck Finn lets us experience that time for just a brief moment–and that’s the magic of books.

The history behind the writing of the book is fascinating.  Mr. Twain never meant this book to be about slavery.  It started out as just another adventure story to compliment Tom Sawyer.  Half-way through writing this tale, Mr. Twain put it down and when he picked it back up again in a year, it became the powerful novel that it is today.

As a writer, I love this because my novels never end up as I’ve planned–things always arise that moves the novel and the characters in different directions than planned–and always in better directions than planned.  I think most writers never set out to write “the great American classic” that will impact readers for all of time.  It just happens; and that in itself is powerful.