Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
I am a sucker for any book set around World War II, and that includes children’s books. Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early follows Jack Bayer at the end of the war when he’s moved from Kansas to a boarding school in Maine following his mother’s death.
The first time Jack sees his father, a Navy man, since he left for the war four years ago is after his mother’s death. As if that wasn’t enough of a shock, his father decides to uproot him to the Morton Hill Academy in Maine since it’s the closest school to the naval shipyard he’s stationed.
At first, Jack isn’t too excited about the change; in fact, the first time he sees the ocean he becomes physically ill. He worries he won’t fit in with the other boys, especially since they all seem to be interested in sailing, something he knows nothing about. He meets Early Auden, a strange orphan who only attends the classes he likes, but leaves if the teacher says something he disagrees with. Early lives in the custodian’s room that he’s transformed into a workshop. After a chance encounter there after a particularly embarrassing episode in the school’s pool, Jack finds himself drawn to Early, and begins to learn things from him, including the story of Pi, the human version of the mathematical number pi, and Fish, a former school sporting legend who died in the war.
When both boys are left at the school alone, they decide to head out on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear Early insists is there. The journey is difficult, and the boys meet unique characters along the way, each who play a part in the story of Pi. Jack finds his burgeoning friendship with Early tested, and begins to learn things about himself and those around him.
Vanderpool has created two uniquely wonderful characters in Jack and Early. Jack is a Midwestern boy at heart who approaches life with caution. His mother’s death and not seeing his father for four years affected him more than he would admit to himself. Early definitely has Aspergers, though Vanderpool never comes out and says that in the novel. Not only does he have a wide range of knowledge, the story he crafts about Pi the human is amazing.
Special kudos must be given to Vanderpool for the Pi story, which is interspersed with the rest of the novel. To take a purely numerical and mathematical element and find ways for the numbers to jump out as pieces of a story is something truly spectacular. It’s during these moments that she truly shines as an author, and it definitely cements her status as a Newbery-winning author (for Moon Over Manifest).
If you hadn’t already planned on adding this title to your shelves, do so now. It’s a great novel for readers ages ten to 14 to try on their own, or to share with their parents, who will find just as much to love about Jack and Early as they will.
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