Saturday, October 19, 2013

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool is one of the books that's getting a lot of buzz in discussions about what might win this year's Newbery award, so I thought I had better read it. (Note: these are unofficial discussions I'm talking about; nobody except the members of the committee knows what's actually up for discussion, and they're not telling!)

After Jack Baker's mother dies, his military father uproots him from the Kansas town where he's lived all his life and places him in a boarding school in Maine. There, Jack almost unintentionally befriends Early Auden, a quirky outsider kid with a fixation on the number pi. When a visit with his father during a school holiday falls through, Jack sets off with Early on an epic quest to find a savage grizzly bear, Early's dead brother, and some missing digits from the calculation of pi (it's complicated).

I actually liked this book better than I thought I would. It has a lot going on -- it starts out as a historical fiction/boarding school story and morphs into a survival/adventure tale, and there's a mythic element scattered throughout as Early tells the story that he alone can read in the digits of pi. Perhaps because of the multiplicity of elements, the pacing is slow but steady. Mathematicians are not going to like the cavalier treatment pi gets in the story, though that element did not bother me all that much. Early is one of several kids in this year's crop of juvenile fiction who would probably fall on the autism spectrum if he were around today, and Jack over-uses the phrase "that strangest of boys" when describing him, which did get on my nerves a bit. I could also entertain arguments about how the pieces all fall together way too conveniently in the ending, though I bought it at the time -- only after reading did I start to think about some of the book's potential flaws. I think it's a book that's going to appeal to a particular sort of reader, one who enjoys a chewy sort of book that gives them a lot to think about, and takes a while to read. Is it the best book for young readers this year? Not in my opinion, and I won't be thrilled if it gets the Newbery medal -- but I can see it possibly getting an honor.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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