In the follow-up to her Newbery Medal-winning debut novel, Clare Vanderpool explores what happens when a boy cast adrift by his family strives to be the best sort of friend.
Clare Vanderpool's debut novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, was something of a dark horse when it won the Newbery Medal --- the highest award given for a novel written for children --- in 2011. Now, Vanderpool follows up her award-winning debut with NAVIGATING EARLY, an equally heartfelt and emotionally involved novel that shares some other characteristics with its predecessor.
"Vanderpool's second novel strongly demonstrates that her Newbery Medal was far from a fluke and establishes her as a thoughtful, emotionally astute writer to watch out for."
Like MOON OVER MANIFEST, Vanderpool's latest novel explores what happens when a young person --- in this case, a boy named Jack Baker --- is asked to start over far away from family. It's just after World War II, and Jack's father, a navy man, is returning home at last. But not
for the joyful reasons everyone had hoped for. Instead, he's returned to northeast Kansas after four years away because Jack's mother has died. Thirteen-year-old Jack feels lost without his mother, who in many ways is the only parent he remembers. "My mother was like sand,"
Jack recalls. "The kind that warms you on a beach when you come shivering out of the cold water. The kind that clings to your body, leaving its impression on your skin to remind you where you've been and where you've come from."
Almost before he has had a chance to register his mom's absence, Jack --- who's lived in Kansas his whole life --- is swept off to the unfamiliar coastline of Maine and enrolled in the Morton Hill Academy for Boys while his father is stationed in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jack feels uneasy and adrift away from his family and discovers himself immediately drawn to a misfit student named Early Auden.
Like MOON OVER MANIFEST, which was also populated with eccentric, unique characters, NAVIGATING EARLY includes plenty of memorable figures, most notably Early Auden. Unlike the other sports-loving boys who populate the halls of Morton Hill Academy, Early --- who's also lost
his family --- is most interested in mathematics and the natural world. He's obsessed with the irrational number pi, whose digits tell him a kind of story. If NAVIGATING EARLY were set in the present day, Early would probably be diagnosed as on the autism spectrum; in the late
1940s setting of the novel, however, he's just marked out as odd or different.
Early is particularly interested in trying to find an enormous black bear rumored to be stalking the Appalachian Trail. When he draws Jack into his absorbing stories, Jack accompanies him on a strange and dangerous quest, during which he must constantly question what it means to be lost and to be found, and most of all, what it really takes to be a friend.
Like Vanderpool's earlier novel, NAVIGATING EARLY is informed by a sort of nostalgia --- both for an earlier time and for an old-fashioned mode of storytelling, at which Vanderpool excels. The friendship between Jack and Early is complicated and genuine, however, and will
likely resonate with children as well as with adults. Vanderpool's second novel strongly demonstrates that her Newbery Medal was far from a fluke and establishes her as a thoughtful, emotionally astute writer to watch out for.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 30, 2013