Most of the time, I like books with a lot of action, a lot of suspense and peril and high stakes, with clever protagonists that outwit their adversaries and always have happy endings because I can’t abide by Tragedy.
But once in a while I’ll find a book that just. Isn’t like that. A book where the stakes aren’t insanely high, the protagonists aren’t especially heroic in the traditional sense, and where maybe there is no discernible enemy to fight. Maybe the ending is even bittersweet instead of the tidy closure of a happy one.
And sometimes, this sort of book will hit me in a place the action-packed ones can’t, and I’ll find myself falling in love.
When I picked this book up I sort of figured that might be the case. I mean, with a title like Here in the Real World (by Sara Pennypacker), there had to be something quiet and deep going on in there. The title was what really intrigued me into checking it out, as someone who doesn’t particularly like spending much time ‘in the real world’. I expected it to be about a kid that doesn’t seem to fit in his real world and finds a way to escape it and in the process make a meaningful friendship or two.
I was right but not in the way I thought I’d be.
Ware is the main character in this one. He’s eleven and at the beginning of the story we find him in the pool at his grandmother’s home in a retirement village. Right off the bat I love him. His attention to detail, his incredible imagination, his desire to be a hero and follow the Knight’s Code. The little things he notices about the world around him delight me. When his grandmother is suddenly taken to the hospital, he has to go back home for the rest of the summer. His parents are understandably stressed about the situation, as the grandmother’s accident is merely the last in a long succession of stressful events. Both of them are working to try to pay off their house and have no one else to take care of Ware over the summer. The only option is the dreaded Rec.
The Rec is a daycare of sorts that lasts the whole summer, with a lot of kids that Ware simply doesn’t know how to deal with. He’s happy on his own, with his imagination, something his mom doesn’t seem to understand. She thinks he can only be happy if he’s out socializing with as many people as possible. So off to the Rec he goes.
On his first day, he slips off during an activity to try to find somewhere quiet. He finds a lovely, tall tree that dips down over the fence into the neighboring lot; a recently torn down church building, owned by no one and already overgrown in the year since its demise. It instantly strikes him as a castle, a castle perfect for a knight like himself.
But someone else found it first; a little girl planting rotten papayas in cans.
And so begins the quest to transform the ruins of an old church into a castle, a place just for Ware and for Jolene, the girl who wants a garden. Throughout the entire summer they move chunks of concrete, rake out decaying leaves and remnants of the place the church used to be, even create a pond to serve as a moat and a safe place for endangered birds that come to visit. They learn more about each other, and about themselves. And about endangered birds thanks to their new and mildly annoying friend Ashley.
I feel seen.
The end seems to come too fast and yet exactly when it should. It isn’t the ending I wanted, but it’s the ending that needed to happen. And in reality (funnily enough) I think it was truly the happiest ending there could have been.
Jolene broke my heart. Ware put it back together. The grandmother made me laugh. Walter made me smile. The mom nearly made me cry. They were all so . . . real. Again, ironic, but that’s how it is. I felt for them, I felt with them.
One of the big themes in this book is, surprisingly, a Christian concept. Being born again. Obviously digging through the ruins of an old church, Ware and Jolene find a lot of things that were inside when it was torn down, including a little pool used for baptisms. This gets them into a discussion about what it was, and why people cared about it. Jolene tells Ware that people would go in because they wanted to come out better, come out new. They wanted all of their bad to get washed away. Neither of them really understood how it worked, but they wanted to find out. The whole thing sort of feels like ‘they’re a little confused, but they’ve got the spirit!’.
And it wouldn’t be a book I loved if there wasn’t an insane amount of found family, as well. Found family everywhere. My beloved. Especially for Jolene, even if that is a spoiler. It shouldn’t be. She deserves it.
In the end, well. Ware is here in the real world. And it isn’t as bad as he thought it was.
I don’t really know what else to say about this book. It stole my heart. I love it. It’s pretty much perfect. Please read it. Thank you.