Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Review by Claudine Yip

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), February 2020

320 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-06-269895-7

Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7

Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism

Sometimes he wished he lived back in the Middle Ages. Things were a lot simpler then, anyway, especially if you were a knight. Knights had a rule book—their code of chivalry—that covered everything: Thou shalt always do this, thou shalt never be that. If you were a knight, you knew where you stood.

Too often, Ware wasn’t even sure he was standing. Sometimes he felt as if he was wafting, in fact. A little drifty.

Have you ever gotten in trouble with a parent or teacher for drifting off into your own world? The disapproving look that follows is an expression eleven-year-old Ware is more than familiar with.

Ware’s parents have never understood how thinking can be just as interesting as any “normal” kid activity. So, when they send him off to summer camp, Ware is forced to have what his mom considers a productive summer break: days spent in an underfunded community centre being bombarded by constant social interaction. The first morning, Ware escapes camp activities and stumbles into the abandoned church next door. There, he meets Jolene, a girl his age who is turning the wrecked church playground in the back parking lot into her personal papaya garden. After convincing Jolene to share the space, Ware resolves to clean the church and baptize himself to become a “normal,” sociable kid who his parents will accept.

The unorthodox goals of Ware and Jolene make for a light-hearted narrative. This is emphasized in the characters’ speech patterns as well: Jolene provides more than a few sarcastic quips throughout the novel, and Ware’s dad speaks primarily through sports metaphors. Still, Ware’s thought processes give the story a reflective tone, particularly through his fascination with Medieval Europe. Throughout the novel, Ware references his memories of school and the report he wrote on Medieval castles; his inherent empathy takes old-fashioned notions of chivalry to heart with a desire to rescue those in need.

While Ware often stumbles through his dialogue with his parents, as well as that with Jolene, I found his narrative voice quite comfortable, and proof that being in his head is easier than being anywhere else. Pennypacker takes advantage of a close third-person limited point of view to depict Ware’s internal daydreams of medieval knights and the notions of chivalry, while at the same time illustrating his distance from the other people in his life. However, as the story continues, the latter shifts, and ideas of sameness and difference between Ware and others become blurred. The malleable point of view also presents a unique method to define Ware’s character arc. Ware repeatedly catches himself in the reflection of Jolene’s sunglasses, and his reaction each time depicts his change in self-image: from seeing himself as “the most pathetic kid in the world” to “a little bit of an actual hero” in a series of parallel points. While these moments stay true to Ware’s already contemplative voice, there is also a larger sense of authority from the third-person perspective through the use of an accessory that belongs to Jolene, rather than something Ware might own and therefore have more autonomy over.

I enjoyed Here in the Real World for its strong message of introvert empowerment and disruption of assumed binaries: real world vs. Magic Fairness Land, insider vs. outsider, normal vs. not. Those who enjoyed R.J. Palacio’s Wonder will find comfort in this story that celebrates introverts, artists, and any others who have ever found difficulties in fitting in.

Claudine Yip is studying Creative Writing with an Art History minor at UBC. She is currently drafting her way through a YA contemporary novel and sporadically blogs about food as an excuse to post all the pictures she takes at bubble tea shops. Visit her at and @cyieat on Instagram.

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