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The Apothecary



Cold War kids use magic to save world in brilliant novel.
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What parents need to know

Educational value

This book could serve as a launch pad for further investigation into chemistry, biology, physics, the history of the Cold War, Latin, Greek, the differences between the British and American educational systems. And because it's all seen through the often-incredulous eyes of teens caught up in a grand adventure, the subject matter seems intriguing rather than deadly.

Positive messages

Saving the world from untold disaster is, of course, a big win. But along the way the two main characters, Janie and Benjamin, learn a new appreciation for their parents' good (and in the case of Benjamin's father, heroic) qualities and perform many courageous feats of their own, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. They also sometimes make age-appropriate bad decisions and later realize that other events might have gone better had they chosen differently. The underlying message of allowing for the possibilities, which allows the book's magic to take place, is not a bad one, either.

Positive role models

The title character, kindly apothecary Marcus Burrows, who turns out to be considerably more than an mild-mannered London druggist, is a formidable force for good, both when it comes to protecting his son and when it comes to saving the world. There are other heroic members of his group, as well. Janie and Benjamin are loyal and brave, and also possessed of good critical thinking skills -- by the end of the book they've learned quite a lot, including a new appreciation of their parents.  While Janie's parents have a ditzy Hollywood quality that doesn't seem quite so fun now that their politics have more or less forced the family to flee their home in the dead of night, it is also quite clear that she and they would walk through fire for each other, and they all know it.


There is ominous Cold War stuff at a young-teen level. The story starts with Janie being followed around her neighborhood by men in a black car. It picks up with  the apothecary in London being kidnapped by scary German-speaking thugs, and the murder of a gardener. Part of the plot hinges on the fact that the Soviets are holding someone's family members hostage and will kill them if he does not do as they say. Numerous bad guys are constantly after the protagonists with no good on their minds. In perhaps the scariest moment, Janie, who is transformed into a bird, is captured and held in the cap of one of the villains.


Happy, innocent kissing. Also flustered consideration, amid dire peril, of the practical challenges of maintaining modesty while bathing naked in an invisibility potion in the presence of the opposite sex.

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Janie takes advantage of the fact that a neighbor lady who's supposed to be taking care of her is a serious drinker to make her escape on spy business.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Apothecary is an engaging, well-written story by an award-winning  adult author who has successfully turned to a younger audience without simply dumbing down adult themes. Some social and ethical complexities may be a bit much for younger kids, e.g., the casual ruthlesslessness with which Janie and Benjamin are willing to try out a potion on their hapless classmate Sergei, the quandary of Sergei's father with his wife and daughter in the hands of his Soviet employers, and Pip's cheerfully thieving nature. Janie's parents are blacklisted Hollywood writers, and Meloy's excellent, evenhanded treatment of the subject might serve as an good introduction to the McCarthy era.

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What's the story?

It's 1952, and 14-year-old Janie Scott is abruptly uprooted from her freshman year in high school in sunny Los Angeles when her parents, blacklisted Hollywood writers, flee to cold, gray postwar London. The kindly local apothecary gives her a free prescription for homesickness; his son Benjamin, who has no interest in the family business and wants to be a spy, is the most interesting thing about her horrible new school. The two are suddenly thrown together when Benjamin's father is apparently kidnapped by German-speaking thugs, but not before he has locked the two teens in the basement with a 700-year-old book and instructions to protect it. The book contains centuries of secrets of how to manipulate matter. Many adventures, transformations, and strange developments ensue, in which Janie, Benjamin and their friends are called upon not only to save Benjamin's father but also to prevent the Soviets from exploding their first atomic bomb.

Is it any good?


This is a great book -- well written, deft in its handling of themes and issues, and full of characters who are engaging even as we see their flaws. The magic is handled in a matter-of-fact way, as just part of the landscape -- as the gardener says mildly to Benjamin early on, "You must allow for the possibilities" -- and it is all the more effective for taking place with a minimum of fuss. The story moves along at a fast pace; the characters are busy saving the world while dealing with common teen woes. There's a lot going on in this book, enough to reward more than one reading, and it's hard not to hope for a sequel. Luckily, one is in the works.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the scary issues of the Cold War, particularly as they appeared to kids growing up at the time, and how they might be similar to today's issues of terrorism -- and manipulated in similar ways. The story offers numerous examples of havoc wrought by naive political beliefs of various stripes, yet lets readers draw their own conclusions.

  • This book introduces numerous ethical balancing acts, such as when Janie has to lie to her parents to explain the absence of Benjamin's father. She doesn't have much choice. In real life, when might it really be the right thing for a 14-year-old to lie to parents about what's going on with a friend?

  • Would you like to go to school at a place like St. Beden's? What's better or worse about it than your school?

  • Have you been to London? How is it the same as in the book? How is it different?

Book details

Author:Maile Meloy
Illustrator:Ian Schoenherr
Topics:Magic and fantasy
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Putnam Juvenile
Publication date:October 4, 2011
Number of pages:368
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Kid, 10 years old March 8, 2012

awesome book

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a book you can't put down! The book involves a bomb and some of the characters almost die, but the ending makes it worth it.
What other families should know
Educational value
Too much violence
Kid, 10 years old November 17, 2013

Amazing Story

This book is really good! It is really descriptive and there was always a part where I could not put it down! There is a lot of adventure that makes you more interested in it, but there is violence and there are people trying to capture her and there are references to atomic bombs, and there are parts where they need to get naked to get the invisibility potion and Benjamin and Janie kiss, but besides that, it's the best book ever!
What other families should know
Educational value
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Kid, 5 years old October 8, 2014

The Apothacary

This was a really good book. What I liked about this book is it has a good balance between magic and real life. Also it was really well written it made you feel as if you were one of the characters in the book. This book is a historical fiction about 2 fourteen year olds that save the world. If I could change anything about this book I would change that they have to get naked to turn invisible because it did not really move the book along. I think that if skin can turn invisible so can clothes. Also I would change the apothecary’s way of mind wiping people instead of spiking their drinks I think he should have done it some other way.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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