Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Award for her debut novel Moon Over Manifest (my thoughts). You can bet that many will be keeping their eyes on her new MG novel, Navigating Early. I personally enjoyed this one far more than the first, though not unequivocally.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
At the end of World War
II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his
mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There,
Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number
pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great
black bear in the nearby mountains.
Newcomer Jack feels lost yet
can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts
to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes,
and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from
the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school,
they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great
But what they are searching for is sometimes
different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters,
each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel,
while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others
in their lives.
Early is a wonderful character. In today's world he would be labeled as someone with Asperger's. In the 1940's setting of this novel he is simply labeled as strange. When Jack first meets him he tries to decipher: Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange? Jack's opinion on this wavers as the story unfolds but in the end he summarizes it perfectly. Early has a strange convoluted and amazing mind. Early's character is so incredibly likeable in all of his strangeness. The way he "sees" the story in the numbers of Pi and how he tells it is intriguing.
Jack is the voice of the story, the character through whom we see everything and I had a harder time with him. He is lonely, confused, and feeling stranded. He is most certainly a sympathetic character. He is also delightfully snarky at times. And I love a good snarky character. But there are times when he doesn't sound anything like the 13 year old boy he is characterized as. He sounds an awful lot like I imagine the author might sound. He speaks with beautiful imagery and description for sure, but it doesn't entirely fit with the picture I had of his character.
The concept for the book is an ambitious one. The plot gets off to a slow start, but once the adventure starts events are exciting. The boys' journey is paralleled by the story Early is telling of Pi. A story he reads in the number itself. This was well executed and interesting. Mathematicians may take issue with the fact that Vanderpool made up some of the digits of Pi to tell the story.
In many ways this is a book that has my different inner readers torn. Adult reader me thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't put it down. Parent-teacher me thinks it will be a difficult sell. And it is too long to teach a unit on, at least for my 4th-6th graders (who I only see once a week). It is definitely a pick for readers who enjoy a more introspective voice.
Navigating Early is available on January 8, 2013. I read a copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.