A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
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.
Talk to your kids 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?
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