Friday, February 1, 2013


At the end of World War II, Jack’s mother dies of an aneurysm just before his highly decorated father returns from fighting in the Navy.  Jack’s father continues to serve in the military, which means Jack must move from his home in Kansas to a boarding school in Maine so that he can be near his father.  Jack feels like a fish out of water at his new school.  The only connection he makes at Morton Hill Academy for Boys is with Early Auden, an orphan at the boarding school who rarely attends classes.  Early might be considered an autistic savant today.  He lives in the school basement, possibly has epilepsy, and is obsessed with the number pi.  Like Jack, Early has experienced devastating loss; his brother is believed to have been killed in action during the war.  Jack and Early form an unlikely friendship when Jack needs help learning to row, a popular sport at their school. 

During fall break, Jack is supposed to leave with his father, but unfortunately his dad cancels at the last minute.  All the other boys at Morton Hill are taking off with their families, except Early.  Early is planning on going on a journey, and Jack, not wanting to be alone and afraid of Early going anywhere on his own, decides to accompany him.  Jack has no idea what Early’s intentions with this trip are, but he is about to go on the adventure of a lifetime that will feature a giant bear, pirates, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a hundred-year-old woman, a murder mystery, a great white whale, and a timber rattlesnake.

Newbery award-winning author Clare Vanderpool’s new novel is a story about friendship, grief, and self-discovery.  Navigating Early is a Huckleberry Finn meets The Odyssey novel for middle grades readers.  Vanderpool creates a wild story with humorous characters.  You have to suspend disbelief when the novel starts to weave numerous storylines together at the end, but the final result is quite beautiful.  I think Navigating Early would work much better as a read-aloud where children could discuss the complex storyline with peers and adults.  I’m not sure that the novel’s intended audience would be able to appreciate the multi-layered story and all the literary devices Vanderpool employs on their own. It is unfortunate that Navigating Early is not as accessible as Vanderpool's brilliant previous novel Moon Over Manifest.

3.5 stars out of 5
Grades 5 and up

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