A Change of Focus: A Review of ‘Surviving the Applewhites’

“Embrace everyone and everything that helps you become a better version of yourself and you will live a life uncommon.” – Matthew Kelly [The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic]

Reading Level

AR 5.5 [7 points]

Grades 6-12 [Scholastic]

Review and Comments

The Applewhite family can be described as unique or extraordinary, but those words really don’t capture the nature of the family well enough.  Idiosyncratic is the word that expresses the dynamics of the Applewhites much better.  A few members can even be described as egocentric.  Each person in this extended family has such a distinctive personality that their individual stories are quite interesting.  Their creative passions seem to divide the family, but when a theatrical crisis occurs, the Applewhites have to pull together and eventually resolve those problems.

The reader is introduced to the family by twelve year old Edith Wharton, or E.D., as she prefers to be called. She describes her family as “a spontaneous group of people who love chaos and crave freedom.” Her family even decides that the children’s education should be different because after all they are not like other people.  Their motto is:  “Education is an adventurous quest for the meaning of life, involving an ability to think things through.” So, they start the Applewhite Creative Academy where “creativity and individuality are paramount,” and the children develop their own study programs to accommodate their personal interests. 

E.D. manages to live with her family’s many creative, and at times eccentric, talents but this is not always easy considering she wants order and structure.  She needs logical and well-thought-out objectives.  Her life becomes even more difficult when a thirteen year old boy named Jake Semple is brought to the Creative Academy for a chance to make positive changes in his life while finishing his education. Grandfather explains to Jake that the most important thing he’s going to learn while he’s with the family is who he is and what he’s made of.  He is proud of his bad reputation even though his reported history is not entirely correct.  He is confident he will be able to affect the Applewhites with his usual negative behavior just as he has at his past schools.  For awhile, Jake feels confident he is succeeding, but eventually he adjusts to the Applewhite’s unusual lifestyle.  He connects with the family dog and the youngest Applewhite son named Destiny – a name that suggests that there will be changes in Jake’s future.

When Randolph Applewhite, the father, is asked to direct the musical The Sound of Music for the local little theater, the family experiences a level of chaos that rivals their established unconventional life style.  In the end, however, the entire family pulls together, sometimes reluctantly, and saves the production. And in the grueling process of bringing the musical to the stage, E.D. realizes her gift for organizing is a talent as real as any of the members of her family, and Jake discovers a talent for acting that launches a new direction in his life. Grandfather once asked Jake what gave him joy.  He had no response.  Now Jake knows that the pleasure of being on the stage is his answer.   And in the end, he has to admit that living with the Applewhite family is certainly an “adventurous quest” that is teaching him to approach situations with new insight.

When Jake makes his entrance at the beginning of the story, he seems to be quite the intimidating delinquent. He has spiked red hair, wears an eye brow ring and earrings, and can curse well enough to shock people.  His swearing is discussed quite a bit at the beginning but no profanity is spelled out.  Jake uses his smoking to punctuate his rebellious nature but later in the book he admits he really doesn’t enjoy smoking and it is more about the prestige of his bad guy reputation that he likes. 

There is a lot of humor surrounding many family situations and the events during the production of the Sound of Music.  This story is meant for an older reader.  Parents should preview the material for a child on the younger side of the suggested reading range.

Possible Concerns

[E.D. wouldn’t tell Jake what her name meant.] “She had no intention of telling this creep the story of her name.”

[Jake was now living with his grandfather.] “That was why Jake had a social worker – because he parents were in jail for growing marijuana in their basement and offering some to an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.”

[Jake wanted to make a point when talking to E.D. for the first time.] “Jake looked her square in the eye and lit the cigarette.  He took a long drag and blew the smoke directly into her face so that she had to close her eyes and hold her breath to keep from choking on it.”

[Jake cursed to make an impression.] “Then he said one of Pauline’s favorite phrases.  No one had managed to break Grandpa’s adopted parrot of swearing.”

[Jake figured he would do all he could to get kicked out of the Creative Academy.] “So far so good, Jake thought.  The girl was bugged by cursing and smoking.  He had news for her.  He intended to do a whole lot of both.”

[Jake saw Cordelia, the older sister, in a black leotard.] “This one was easy to recognize as a girl!”

[Jake’s observed of E. D.] “She wasn’t much to look at.  Not much shape yet.”

[Jake met the parrot.] “The parrot looked up from picking at one foot with his beak, raised his green, yellow, and red wings, and swore a long stream of colorful curses.  Jake swore back.”

[Jake thought about the type of people who were sent to Juvenile Hall.] “The druggies and the ones who bragged about the guns they could bring to school if they wanted to.”

[Jake talks to Destiny, the younger brother.] “It wasn’t until Destiny yelped that he realized he used the F word.

Further Discussion


  • Awards:  Newberry (Honor 2003)
  • ALSC Notable Children’s Book (Commended 2003)

Series Titles (Click on pictures for affiliate link):

  • Applewhites at Wit’s End #2
  • Applewhites Coast to Coast #3


  • Listen to the score from “The Sound of Music.”


  • Which character do you identify with?  Explain why you chose that person.
  • What talent(s) do you possess? Explain how you use your talent(s).
  • Make a chart displaying each person in the Applewhite family.  Write a description about each person’s talent and personality.


Catholic Resources

A prayer for adolescents when in need of a sense of purpose:
Heavenly Father,
I look to You in my time of need. I don’t feel like I matter much to people in this world. My self-confidence is really low right now, and I don’t know where to turn. Do You really have a specific plan for my life? That is an awesome thought. 
Help me to see myself, as You see me. Teach me the things I need to learn to fulfill that purpose. I place myself into Your hands, because I trust in Your opinion of me. Thank You, Heavenly Father for believing in me. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

A prayer for adolescents when in need of guidance:

Heavenly Father,
I know you are the great counselor! I am in need of guidance, for I don’t know what to do. Help me to do what You want done in this situation. Please send someone to show me the steps I need to take. I depend on You, and I thank You, Heavenly Father. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


  1. Saint Dominic Savio can be an intercessor for a rebellious teen.  Dominic is known as the patron saint of “juvenile delinquents.”  His feast day is May 6.
  2. Saint Genesius is the patron saint of actors. His feast day is August 25.
  3. Saint Francis de Sales is the patron saint of authors.  His feast day is January 24.

A Prayer for Prisoners:

Father of Mercy, the secrets of all hearts are known to you alone. You know who is just and you forgive the unjust. You alone are the Almighty Judge. We are not worthy of judging anyone. Your mercy is enough for sinners. Hear our prayers for those in prison. Give them repentance and let them believe in you. Give them patience and hope in their sufferings, and bring them home again soon. Comfort their near and dear ones. Let them trust in Jesus Christ and live with hope. Amen.

[Jake uses bad language as a way to prove his bad reputation is accurate.] The following quotes from the Bible address using bad language:

  • “Do not get in the habit of swearing, do not make a habit of naming the Holy One.” – Sirach 23:9
  • * anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths.” – Colossians 3:8
  • – Colossians 4:6
  • – Matthew 15:11
  • “Nobody who fails to keep a tight rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is mere self-deception; that person’s religion is worthless.” – James 1:26
  • “Those who guard mouth and tongue guard themselves from trouble.” – Proverbs 21:
  • From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  This need not be so, my brothers.” – James 3:10  

CCC 2206 The relationships within the family bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests, arising above all from the members’ respect for one another. The family is a privileged community called to achieve a “sharing of thought and common deliberation by the spouses as well as their eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing.

CCC 2207 The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.