Once Upon a Story
March 14, 2013

Navigating EarlyNavigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Published by:Random House

Release date: January 2013

Ages:10 and up


From the publisher:

“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 black bear. 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.”

My thoughts:

After her debut novel Moon Over Manifest won the 2011 Newbery, there was much buzz about Vanderpool’s second novel, Navigating Early.  I imagine, for an author, it can be intimidating to have your breakout novel to win the Newbery. How do you top that?  Fortunately, it doesn’t seem as if Vanderpool let this hold her back… Navigating Early is another wonderful work of fiction.

This is historical fiction, but there’s also a timeless feel.  The post-WWII time frame serves as a backdrop, but the emotions and growth experienced by the characters could take place at just about any time.  At the onset of the story, we meet Jack.  Jack’s mother has recently died, and his father, a Naval officer, has headed back out to see, shipping Jack off to remote all-male boarding school in Maine.  Here, everything is different, and Jack doesn’t quite fit in. He’s a misfit in every sense of the word.

And then he meets Early.

Early, who doesn’t live in the dorms, but instead in an old custodial closet.  Early, who collects odd newspaper clippings and listens to old records on a phonograph.  Early, who lives at the school…but doesn’t attend any of the classes.  Early is a true misfit. (Have you ever seen A Beautiful Mind?)

It’s through Early that Vanderpool introduces a parallel story, that of Pi.  It’s Early who tells Pi’s tale, using a mathematical formula that only Early seems to be able to understand.  Pi’s story is that of  a boy who sets out to find his own adventure and earn his name, finding much more than he bargained for.  In Early’s mind, his story is intertwined with Pi’s and he convinces Jack to embark on an adventure of their own. From this point onward, Vanderpool writes two adventure stories: Early and Jack’s, and Pi’s.  The stories weave in and out of each other in a way that should be confusing (and, to be honest, was a little bit in the beginning), but remain distinct from each other.  The stories are both about physical journeys, but moreover, they’re stories about pain, confusion, enlightenment, and healing for all 3 boys.

Navigating Early is masterfully crafted, once you fall into the rhythm of the stories.  On the surface, it’s an adventure tale, but there’s so many more levels to be explored.  Recommended for both home and classroom, as a read aloud or independently.

And what better book to recommend on Pi Day?





2 responses to “Review: Navigating Early”

  1. PragmaticMom says:

    I am fascinated with how she weaves a Pi number story into the book. I have a copy and now I am compelled to pick it up. I went to an author event and she said that Early was special needs. Did he seem autistic?

  2. Nothing specific about Early is ever said, but he shares some characters with children typically diagnosed with Asberger’s. I kinda like that nothing is said either way because it leaves him open for interpretation without the stigma of labels, know what I mean? Keeps the character universal. It’s a really interesting book, I think you’ll enjoy it.

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