Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review - Turtle in Paradise

Seems like it's that time of year when everyone is making their Newbery posts. Speculating on what might win and trying to position their favorites into the discussion (well the online discussion at least). Last year When You Reach Me jumped right out, grabbed me, and never let me go. Back in 2008 I fell in love with both The Underneath and We Are the Ship and would have been equally happy to see either book go on to win the medal (I was both happy and disappointed that announcement day). I'd been waiting on the sidelines a bit this year because I didn't feel like I had found a horse in the race yet. I've read 23 Newbery type 2010 releases so far (MG fiction or nonfiction from eligible authors) and while I enjoyed many of them and even love some, none had grabbed me the way WYRM or The Underneath had. That is until yesterday when I read Jenifer L. Holm's Turtle in Paradise.

I started Turtle in Paradise with some skepticism. First off their is the main character's name. Turtle's already been taken and she's awesome. Would you write a story about a pig and name him Wilbur? A story about a king and name him Lear? Why invite such a comparison? Hommage I can understand but why so direct?

Needless to say I didn't much like Turtle before I even met her. How dare she steal the name of one of the 2 or 3 best characters in children's literature! I loved Holm's Penny from Heaven so I decided to get over the name thing and give the book a chance. I only had to read three sentences and I'm ready to give both Holm and Turtle a reprieve. Turns out Turtle's not a big fan of children, I'm starting to get hooked already.

A slight hiccup on page 8 when Turtle expresses her hatered for Shirely Temple. I flip back to see check the story's time frame. Its set in 1935 so Turtle has yet to experience the perfection that is John Ford's We Willy Winkie (1937) so I can understand not loving Temple. I will quietly assume that Turtle will change her mind when she does see this masterpiece of American cinema.

After that its clear sailing. Holm's prose reads effortlessly and before I know it the book is finished and I've found my horse! I haven't seen a lot of buzz out their for this book but I am hoping the committee will give it the chance it deserves.

Turtle's story is definitely the type of story that, in the past, has been eaten up by Newbery Committees. In short: Turtle is sent down to depression era Key West to live with her aunt (who she's never met) and cousins while her mother works a housekeeping job in New Jersey. Turtle adjusts and later flourishes in the shoeless, sandy environment dreaming of the day she and her mom can finally reunite.

All of Holm's characters are charming and well crafted. The carefree daily adventures of the (mostly all related in someway) gang of independent young Conchs brings to mind titles like The Penderwicks and The Great Brain. The only thing that didn't really work for me (other than the Turtle thing) was the way Holm shoehorned Hemingway into the story. Yes he was on the island at the time, but the kids didn't really need to run into him there. In the first encounter the character is simply referred to as a writer. I thought it would be obvious to any adult reader that the character was meant to be Hemingway. But later in the book he is introduced by name which felt a bit contrived or at least unnecessary as he doesn't add anything important to the narrative.

The Hemingway thing aside, I really love this book. Each character is both likable and well conceived. The plotting is fast and the narrative is structure in a way that should appeal to many fourth to sixth grade readers. As I stated above, stories like this have often garnered Newbery recognition in the past, most recently with The Higher Power of Lucky. The committee's job is not, however, to make comparisons to books from past years, so hopefully the 'kid separated from his/her parents' thing won't be a factor in discussions. Yes we've seen it before but if it has once again been done in such a perfect way why, one should not discount the book. I think the committee will have to hold this title up next to Appelt's Keeper and really dig into both books to find the more distinguished of the titles. I doubt both will be honored in the same year, which is unfortunate since they are both near the top of my list as of today.

For the record here's my top 5 as of now: (unless I can be convinced that Blink and Gollie somehow fits the criteria, in which case ignore this entire post, give B&G the medal and award no honors!)

1. Turtle in Paradise
2. Clementine, Friend of the Week
3. Night Fairy
4. One Crazy Summer
5. Keeper

Right now I have in hand to read: A Million Shades of Gray, The Water Seeker, Alchemy and Meggy Swann.
I'm still waiting to get my hands on: Forge, Scumble, The Ghostwriter Secret, Sugar Changed the World, Selling Hope.

Here's a list of the 2010 books I've read that aren't (right now at least) making my list: [* next to the rest of my top ten which I'll probably reread soon]

The Celestial Globe
The Mysterious Howling
Out of My Mind*
Falling In
The Dreamer*
Woods Runner
The Boneshaker
As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth
The Firefly Letters*
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda*
Smells Like Dog
Sir Charlie Chaplin
The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester
Touch Blue
Justin Fisher Declares War

Other than A Conspiracy of Kings, which I'm not planning on reading since I didn't really like The Thief and don't have the desire to catch up with the rest of the series at this point, what books am I missing? What should I read as soon as I can? How can I get Forge sooner?

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