Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool (lexile: 790; AR book level: 5.2; 306 pp)
Let the cover introduce Navigating Early: two boys, alone in a canoe, traveling down a wilderness stream. Where are they headed? You’re not quite sure, and perhaps they’re not, either; in the early dawn, fog obscures the path ahead. But sunlight glows on the horizon — will they find what they’re seeking?
It’s 1945, just after World War II, and 13-year-old Jack Baker is suddenly uprooted from his native Kansas. His mother has died, and his father, in the Navy, comes home just long enough to move Jack to a boys boarding school in Maine. Jack feels a misfit in this new environment, but most challenging is getting to know Early Auden, “that strangest of boys.” Early lives in the basement workshop rather than the dorm, goes to class when he chooses, and has a precise schedule for what music he listens to when (Billie Holiday when it rains). Above all, Early sees in the never-ending digits of the number pi (3.14…) an actual story, of a character named Pi who is on a quest and is lost. Jack can’t decide if Early is “straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange”.
When the two boys find themselves by chance alone at school during a break, Early persuades Jack to head out with him on the Appalachian Trail, following the steps of Pi and seeking the great Appalachian bear that Early is sure exists. Their sometimes harrowing adventures seem to eerily parallel those that Early sees in Pi’s story. Along the way they’ll meet an array of strange, seemingly unrelated characters, whose stories Vanderpool expertly ties together in the end. Ultimately, Jack and Early will each will find more than he was seeking, and just what he needed.
This story is multi-layered: on the surface, it’s an odyssey, the adventure of two boys on a quest. Beneath, however, lie themes of friendship, self-discovery, father-son relationships, and dealing with loss, grief, and guilt. And Vanderpool is an artist of a writer, with brilliant, memorable, almost poetic phrasing. Kids — and adults — who are willing to plunge into an adventure that runs deep will enjoy Navigating Early.
Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Medal for her brilliant debut novel, Moon Over Manifest. And — here it is, my prediction — I’d say with Navigating Early we’re looking at the 2014 winner. (Hey, I was right last year … why not two in a row?)