The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

the apothecaryReading level: 5 (??)
Lexile: 740
Series: The Apothecary book 1
Genre: historical fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster.

This book was recommended to me by my fabulous cooperating teacher, and I loved it. Five minutes have passed since I finished it, and I’ve already begun the sequel.

Being a history lover, I was naturally intrigued by the setting, both the location (London, at least for a while) and the time period (1955). The Apothecary is a perfect blend of believable historical fiction with some magic thrown in there. I was completely drawn into the world Meloy had created, not to mention the lovely characters. Janie and Benjamin (and their parents) were a breath of fresh air after the maddening characters in the Divergent series that I just finished. Janie is intelligent, careful, bold, brave, and shy all at once while Benjamin is much the same with some rebellious qualities. Oh, and Pip. I wasn’t sure about him at first, but he’s sure adorable, if not a stereotypical Dickens-esque pickpocket. I’m curious to see what role he will have, if any, in The Apprentices (the sequel).

The romance is adorable and beautifully done. It isn’t soppy or inappropriate, and you can’t help but root for them. The real test of Benjamen’s love is when he has to say goodbye. Oh man, that ending…

It could find a place in both an English or social studies classroom, and it would be an excellent companion while studying WWII or the Red Scare. It’s got too much mysticism to be read as a class text for the purpose of studying history, but it would be an excellent way to get kids interested in history by doing a booktalk or using it in a book club. Something to point out, though, is that Germans, Russians, Japanese are cast in a negative light by the Americans and English, as they were at this time period. To students, I might explain why there was such negative sentiment towards these groups of people but that it’s never good to generalize or stereotype. In fact, the Russian spy and his son were an example of people trying to do “good” while so many people assumed they were evil simply because of their heritage.

Some of the beauty of this book comes from the message of peace in a time when humans have created weapons to destroy each other, Mutually Assured Destruction. The characters believe so strongly that the world can be saved from such weapons that they risk their lives so that everyone else may live. It’s an interesting look back at history and the Cold War as well as the issues we continue to face as countries around the world hold (or are suspected to hold) nuclear weapons.

The Apothecary isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because there are names in different languages as well as a pretty fantastic vocabulary, which helps add to the book’s magic. I think it would be an acceptable challenge to advanced or transitional ELLs as well as native English speakers. I disagree with the reading level being 5th grade because the vocabulary is rather complex throughout. I’d estimate it being at a 7th or 8th grade level, if not 9th.

I read somewhere that the book is written for middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers getting into it too. It wasn’t childish or too complex for younger readers to understand.

The book can certainly stand alone, but there are so many questions left unanswered, and I desperately want to see Janie and Benjamen be reunited, although it’s implied at the end of the book that they will see each other again, although we’re unsure of the circumstances under which they will meet.

Oh, and the illustrations are beautiful.

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