I feel compelled to read any book that Brett Helquist graces with his artwork. There is just something about they way he illustrates the characters and captures the drama of the story that makes me want to know more. When I saw that he had done the cover art for Applewhites at Wit's End, the sequel to Stephanie Tolan's 2003 Newbery Honor winner Surviving the Applewhites (as well as an updated cover for the first book) I knew I had to reread Tolan's book and then read her newest work.
One the best parts of my job at the bookstore when I first started in 1995 was the opportunity I had to create and run various book clubs for kids and the occasional clubs for adults. At one point I ran book clubs for Magic Tree House, Goosebumps, American Girl and Newbery Books as well as a weekly pajama story time. I think my favorite group was the Newbery Book Club, which was usually chock full of very creative, very bright girls ages 8 - 11. I know that I read and enjoyed Surviving the Applewhites some ten years ago, but I don't remember what the other members of the book group thought of it. Reading Surviving the Applewhites again, some ten years (and hundreds of kid's books later) Tolan's book feels a bit dated, and not just for the mentions of Miatas and Walkmans, but because of the ways that this genre of children's literature has expanded and changed in the last decade. I went back and looked over the lists of Newbery gold and silver medal winners from the late 1990s up through today to compare and contrast. Sharon Creech, EL Konigsburg and Jerry Spinelli seemed to have a corner on contemporary, realistic fiction at the time. And it was a simpler time. Jack Gantos, Cynthia Lord, Jacqueline Woodson and Gary Scmidt (although his books are set in the past) have upped the bar and the dramatic potential. That said, I think that Surviving the Applewhites is still a standout for the representation of artists and creative expression in a book for young readers. The book is packed full of interesting, if not always reliable, adults, which is kind of rare in a kid's book. And, while the adults sometimes behave badly and selfishly, they are the village that is raising four children to be independent, self-motivated, confident and creative and they seem to be succeeding. What is especially exciting to me is the way that Tolan has brought this creative clan into the 21st century with Applewhites at Wit's End. Subtle changes and shifts in this new novel have reminded me why I loved the Applewhite clan in the first place and made me grateful to get to spend some more time with them, especially E.D. and Jake.
In Surviving the Applewhites we first meet the Applewhite clan (or creative dynasty as they come to be known) by way of juvenile delinquent Jake Semple. Jake's parents are in jail for selling home grown marijuana to an off-duty sheriff's deputy. Jake has been kicked out of his middle school in Rhode Island for arson. There was a molotov cocktail but arson was not Jake's intent, although not much is explained beyond that. After moving to North Carolina to live with his grandfather, he is kicked out of Traybridge Middle School in three weeks flat. His last hope is the Creative Academy, which is the monniker Randolph Applewhite has given to the home schooling (more like un-schooling, really) that goes on at Wit's End, the compound where the family resides. The family includes patriarch Zedediah Applewhite, rocking chair craftsman, Archie Applewhite, maker of Furniture of the Absurd, which means non-functional furniture that is art, and Archie's wife, the poet and spiritual mystic and occasional photographer. Zedediah's other son, Randolph, a famous (off) Broadway theater director, is married to Sybil Jameson, author of the best-selling Petunia Grantham novels about a florist who solves mysteries (how great is that character name?) and main breadwinner of the creative clan. Randolph and Sybil are parents to Cordelia, seventeen, a dancer and choreographer, Hal, sixteen, a seriously introverted painter, E.D. (real name, Edith, after Edith Wharton) the black sheep of the family who prefers orderliness over all else and supposedly the one non-creative Applewhite, and Destiny, a five-year old, highly creative, extremely talkative wild child.
E.D. is put off by Jake's presence right away, perhaps because she knows that, being the most organized Applewhite, the responsibility of educating Jake will fall to her. Also, with his prickly appearance and personality, Jake is pretty off putting on his own. Although a common occurrence now, Jake's spiky, bright red hair, ear and eyebrow piercings and studded leather dog collar sent a very strong, specific message in 2002. On top of that, Jake smokes and swears like a sailor (implied, not actual swearing.) These bad habits turn out to be not such a big deal since Zedediah owns a parrot, Paulie, who only knows how to swear, and the adult Applewhite adults stamp out the smoking right away. Jake's bad attitude quickly takes a backseat to the drama that Randolph stirs up, both through his narcissistic personality and his theater endeavors when the Little Traybridge Playhouse hires him to direct their production of "The Sound of Music." Randolph's color and gender-blind casting, in an effort to hire the best actors possible, as well as his refusal to give the part of Gretl to the tone-deaf, gangly, stage-mothered daughter of one of the board members of the theater, result in the whole production being cancelled. The family pulls together, with E.D. discovering her talent which, while not creative is every bit as valuable and essential as those of her relatives. A master organizer, she steps in as stage manager and keeps the project on schedule. The Applewhites are also helped by Jeremy, a novice reporter sent to do an article on Sybil who ends up living with the Applewhites after Randolph totals his car. Jeremy has stirred up interest from local television stations as well as planning out his own series of articles on the family, so the publicity of the play is essential.
With every Applewhite putting their personal projects aside and their talents to work for Randolph, they quickly turn the barn at Wit's End into a playhouse while also sewing costume and building scenery. Another outsider who stays on to help is the wonderful Govindaswami, chef extraordinaire and provider of the spicy, Indian food that keeps the creative engines running. The production is a great success, despite a raging storm the night of the show that cuts the electricity. Tolan layers her story with Jake's growing understanding of himself and his place in the world and with E.D.'s struggle to have her non-artistic talents appreciated by her family of artists. And, while the transgressions of Jake and his parents, as well as his initial inclination to continue them are an important part of his character and development, Tolan plays them WAY down. Perhaps what gives Surviving the Applewhites a different feel from more recent works of contemporary fiction I have read is the third person narrative that moves the story forward but does not allow for much introspection or imagination among the many characters in the book. And this really is a good thing. Sometimes I feel worn down by the social and emotional issues that the main characters in Newbery award winning books go through. It's nice to read a book about some characters with flaws that call more for working around or smoothing the edges than overcoming and triumphing. It's nice to read about people who are a little screwed-up and normally so.
In Applewhites at Wit's End we find the family a few months after the success of the production of "The Sound of Music" at the Wit's End Playhouse, Jake having landed the role of the Artful Dodger in a production of "Oliver!" in Raleigh, directed by Randolph. Upon returning home after a visit to New York City, Randolph informs the family that they are broke, their combined coffers having been wiped out by their accountant. They have just enough money to pay the mortgage for a few more months. On top of that, Sybil has killed off her cash-cow, Petunia Grantham, because she can't bear to write another mystery about her. The brilliant solution to their dilemma, arrived at by Randolph who, as usual, will not be there to actually roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, is to run a summer camp for creative children called Eureka! If they can attract twelve campers for the eight week session, the Applewhites will make enough money to pay off their mortgage all together. Once again, the family pulls together to convert their compound, formerly the Bide-a-Wee Motor Lodge with eight cottages that house Archie, Lucille, Jake and Zedediah as well as workshops and studios and a main house for Randolph's family, into a summer camp. They photograph the grounds, make a brochure and start a website and, by the application deadline, they have six of the twelve campers they were hoping for. In fact, they are they only six children who applied, making the winnowing down process of application selection Randolph had anticipated moot.
Whereas the ability of the Applewhite adults to homeschool five children seemed dubious in Surviving the Applewhites, at least from my parental perspective, their capacity to run a summer camp for creative kids is never in doubt and the meeting sessions where the camp and the various workshops comes together is one of my favorite parts of the book. While the Applewhites may seem a bit narcissistic, when it comes to sharing their talents with others they are generous and openminded when it comes to other people's artistic expression. E.D. puts her organizational talents to work, this time as a camp director and seemingly the only Applewhite with the foresight to make accommodations for all possible eventualities. The one part of running a summer camp that no one anticipates is the state licensing required to run a summer camp. Just when the Applewhites have adjusted to and made allowances for the different personalities of their six very different campers, they are confronted with their oversight. But is the government really out to shut down Eureka! or is it someone else with an axe to grind? Once again, it is E.D. stepping in and acting the adult. This time she navigates the temperamental personalities of the adults with the help of the level-headed Jake who, now that he has found his home in the theater, is grateful to have been included in the whole summer camp scheme. Impressed by an improv exercise that Randolph uses in the theater workshop, Jake and E.D. figure out how to get the campers and young Applewhites to work together as an ensemble to delay if not thwart entirely the closing of the camp.
As I finished writing that last sentence, I realized that I have used the word "together" repeatedly in this review. It's hard not to write about the Applewhite clan and Tolan's wonderful pair of books without using that word over and over. While Surviving the Applewhites may pale a bit when compared to Applewhites at Wit's End, both books are standouts for the wide range of personalities and complexities Tolan's characters embody, for the proliferation of creative, creating adults and for the deep bonds and commitment to their art that they all share, despite their differences and struggles. On top of it all, Tolan's books are fun to read and funny. I barely touch upon Destiny, who has a "Pooh and Piglet" idea that works out really well, Winston, the sensitive basset hound who attaches himself to Jake, and Wolfbane, the demented, angry goat who makes for much mayhem in both books. On top of that, there are the campers! This time, Tolan provides a family tree and a cast of characters to sort out everyone in Applewhites at Wit's End. But, the family and campers all feel so familiar you may not even need it.