My birthday (Jan 8) this year is a popular release date for the first batch of middle grade novels--if the three I've read are any indication! And not just any ol' bunch of middle grade novels... these are by big time folks. Vanderpool's name might not mean much to our Literaritea readers, but her first middle grade novel won that little Newbery award a couple of years back (Moon Over Manifest). Yes, indeed. And any time a former Newbery winner releases another book, you better believe we jump on it. So I did. And Random House kindly let me read it in ARC form (thanks RH!).
When I read an Advanced Reader Copy, I frequently jump into the book "cold." That is, I know little to nothing of the plot, see no other praise/comments such as might appear on the book cover, and frequently don't see a cover (or a poor image of one). Thus, I enter the reading experience with no preconceptions except those based on my previous reading of the same author's works. Definitely true in the case of Navigating Early. I didn't even know how long it was because I was too lazy to scan the small font on the first ARC page that would have told me that info.
I wasn't wowed by Moon Over Manifest, I'll be honest. Navigating Early is a much stronger work in my opinion. Another historical fiction work, this time set just at the end of WWII in a boys' boarding school in Maine, Navigating Early follows one boy's journey to come to grips with his mother's death and his father's seeming unconcern for him. In the process, he meets the unique Early Auden, goes on a fantastical voyage that weaves in and out of the mythic story of Pi (including the discovery of further numbers), and helps bring closure to more than one person in Early's famous family.
If Early Auden were living today, we would diagnose him somewhere on the autism spectrum--probably Asberger's. I really like that he is NOT diagnosed in this book (he wouldn't have been labeled in the WWII time period either). I think this adds to his character significantly. We want to label people in so many ways; isn't it better to befriend them and learn from them regardless of what label they might carry? Jack learns that Early is a true friend. And Jack learns how to be a friend back.
Early teaches Jack many things on their voyage to find the giant bear, to follow Pi's journey, and to complete their quest. What Jack doesn't know is that Early's absolute conviction of his brother's survival from war (against ALL official evidence), his knowledge of the mathematical intricacies involved in the number Pi, and his childlike faith in the details he notices are all true--even though the casual observer would never believe it. Early notices myriad details that others miss, perhaps because he's not so caught up in the social issues that bog most folks down. Part magical realism, part quest, and all friendship, this story works for me better than Moon Over Manifest. It's a touch too long and struggles a bit with the voice--sounds more like an adult narrating than Jack many times. Still, it's worth reading, and I think many sensitive young readers will enjoy this one.