Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

“The Real World” poses a creative challenge to a pair of enterprising middle-graders with conflicting motives.

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker. HarperCollins, 2020, 308 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-14

One little event can upend an entire summer, although in Ware’s case, it’s a pretty big event. He was looking forward to reading about knights and chivalry and daydreaming around the pool at his grandma’s retirement village. But on the first day of summer vacation she has a stroke, meaning weeks of rehab for her. For Ware, it means the kids’ summer program at the community center (a.k.a. “Rec”). He’d rather do anything else, but his mom is adamant and Dad is apologetic yet hopeful that Ware might pick up some baseball or soccer skills. So it’s off to eight hours/day of planned activities and screaming kids.

On the first day, feeling uncharacteristically bold, he climbs a tree next to the fence to get a better view of the bell tower of the Glory Alliance Church next door. An amazing sight meets his eyes: the church is halfway demolished and a skinny girl has claimed the property as a garden to raise papaya plants. This is Jolene, as prickly and confrontational as Ware is gentle and mild. But one thing leads to another, and before long Ware has ditched the Rec to spend his days with a ruined church and a makeshift garden and a girl who scorns his friendship. They will form an alliance of sorts, but can he, the chivalrous knight, be able to defend her and her plans when the lot is sold?

A surprising amount of Christian imagery appears throughout: the church, holy water, baptism, praying hands, a purpose-driven life, and “Be not afraid.” Jolene explains some of these things very imperfectly to Ware, inspiring his desire to somehow be born again into a person more pleasing to his parents. But instead, it’s Ware and Jolene who can bring about rebirth in a vacant lot with a church that’s no longer relevant.

In Culture Making, author Andy Crouch explores the creation mandate, in which God gives humans the joy and responsibility of “making something” of the earth. Humans do this even without realizing it’s a biblical idea. Sara Pennypacker may not realize it either, but Ware and Jolene are making culture by redeeming church property to build a garden and a castle. They also build a relationship that will stand even after the property is bulldozed. “Art” is the active agent, not the Holy Spirit, whose day has presumably passed. But humans can’t entirely shake the image, or the creative spirit, planted in them by God himself. That, and the outstanding literary quality, makes this story worth reading and talking about (see discussion questions).

Overall Rating: 4.25 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.75
  • Artistic/literary value: 5

Discussion questions:

  • What is driving Jolene to plant her garden? Might she have more than one motivation?
  • Is there anything in Ware’s character and personality that draws him to the idea of knights and chivalry? How does that ideal inspire him? (And what’s the difference between an idea and an ideal?)
  • What inspires you? How can you use it to remake the world around you?
  • How do the two main characters influence each other?

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Also at Redeemed Reader:

It’s spring! See our Librarian’s list of gardening books.

The Vanderbeekers and the Secret Garden is the story of another reclamation project; see our starred review.

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Janie

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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