Summary of Navigating Early (by Clare Vanderpool):
Jack Baker is suddenly uprooted from his Kansas home after his mother dies. He transfers to a Maine boarding school while his father, a military officer, finishes serving at the close of World War II. Early Auden, the strangest of boys, is also an outsider who has faced great loss. The two boys forge a friendship that takes them on a quest in search of the Great Appalachian Bear. Along the way, Early tells Jack of the fictional story of Pi which parallels their own physical and, often, personal journeys toward facing the loss and pain in their lives. A colorful cast of characters help make their quest memorable and poignant.
I read Vanderpool’s debut (and Newbery winning) novel, Moon Over Manifest, so when I saw this new book on a couple other blogs, I knew I had to read it. Vanderpool has a gift for creating unforgettable characters and parallel multi-layered story lines. Navigating Early showcases both of these features.
Jack is a sort of “every boy.” He struggles with fitting in and finding his place in school, in his family, and in life. Early, on the other hand, is rare and unforgettable. Jack commonly calls him “the strangest of boys” because Early’s behaviors were not understood in that era. Though Early is highly intelligent and functional, he appears to be on the autism spectrum. His mannerisms and personality are endearing and, at time, humorous. I could not help loving him.
The main story line is Jack and Early’s quest. Early creates a story to parallel the numbers in the mathematical pi. Pi, like Jack and Early, must go on a quest to earn his name. As Pi learns what it means to be a man and deal with loss and hardship so do Jack and Early—each in a different way. Even the minor characters they encounter have their own intertwined and satisfying stories.
Middle grade readers will be drawn to the boys’ journey to find the Great Appalachian Bear. They will relate to Jack’s and Early’s characters as well as enjoy the fascinating other characters. I highly recommend Navigating Early for ages 8 and up.
Check out other excellent Middle Grade Fictions at Shannon Messenger's blog.