Review: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool


January 14, 2013 by Heidi

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool book coverTitle: Navigating Early [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Clare Vanderpool [Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Middle Grade, Historical
Published: January 8th, 2013 by Delacorte BFYR
Format: Hardcover; 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley

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.

If you read and loved Vanderpool’s heartwarming debut and Newberry Medal Winning Moon Over Manifest and are hoping to find the same depth of humanity in her sophomore novel, Navigating Early, you are in luck.  In fact, my greatest criticism about Navigating Early is that it’s too thematically similar to Moon Over Manifest, so let me get that gripe out of the way before I can dive into why Navigating Early is such a wonderful read.

Both books involve children who are displaced–they have left what homes they knew to take up residence in a new and strange local.  Both must learn to navigate their new environments as the new kid.  Both have essentially lost their mothers, and both have a strong and wounding disconnect with their fathers.  Both stories rely heavily on the power of coincidence or, as Jack’s mother would say, “There are no coincidences.  Just miracles by the boatload.”  Both books utilize the technique of stories within stories in order to tell their tale.  In fact, Moon Over Manifest and Navigating Early were arranged so similarly that it made it impossible for me to be swept away and fall in love with this new book the way that I was when listening to Moon.  I sincerely wonder if there had been more time in between my reading of the two, or if I had read Navigating Early first, which I would prefer.  Perhaps Clare Vanderpool will fall into my list of authors who write the same sort of book over and over, but do it so well I love them regardless (this list being headed by John Green, of course).

My only final complaint is that those double meaning titles (you know the ones, like Saving Grace, Shattered Glass, that sort of thing) make me gag instinctively–it’s like something I would have named a book for a writing contest in 7th grade knowing the judges would all think ‘Oh! She’s so clever.’  And then tear up and promptly award me a blue ribbon.  Yuck.  But regardless,  Navigating Early boasts one of my absolute favorite covers of 2013 thus far–I mean look at that water and fog!–so I’d still hang a giant poster of it on my wall.

The first 1/3-1/2 of Navigating Early slogs by at a fairly slow pace, but in a way that is necessary to set up for the remaining journey of the book.  As a child of a landlocked state, I felt Jack’s complete nausea upon seeing the ocean, and as someone who for inexplicable reasons joined the crew team at University, I really pitied Jack’s first experiences in a boat attempting to navigate a language and motions that seemed ingrained in others, but to him were completely foreign.  Jack is only 13, but he’s already learned some of the harsher lessons in life.  He knows that nothing lasts forever, and envies those who have yet to see this.  When his mother dies, his father returns from years at war to sweep her memory aside and drop his son at a boarding school hundreds of miles away from everything and everyone he knows, without even his remaining parent to comfort him.

Early has what we today would identify as Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of Autism, though in 1945 he is identified only as strange.  In addition, he is a savant with an instinctual understanding and interpretation of math that blurs into synesthesia.  Early sees Pi as more than a number–he sees a story, and Jack is the one boy willing to ask Early the all-important question: “Who is Pi?”

As Early reveals the story of Pi to Jack, the boys begin to mirror Pi’s journey in their search for the Great Appalachian Bear and Early’s brother.  Jack begins to anticipate where the lines between reality and story will blur, questioning his own sanity as Early’s tale seems less and less crazy.

Navigating Early is a wonderful story of friendship and finding one’s bearings.  Throughout so much of this story Jack feels lost, almost stymied by the possibilities before him.  Early, on the other hand, maintains his direction.  He knows who he is and where he is going, and he helps Jack to do the same–at least enough so that when he himself feels lost, Jack will be there to put Early back on track.  In some ways, Vanderpool’s sophomore novel is stronger than her debut.  She is more sure of herself as she constructs her adventures, more subtle in her connections, and more powerful in developing her characters.  This is the nuance I love to see in Middle Grade.  Vanderpool doesn’t write down to kids, she writes with introspection as one of them, imparting lessons with actions that could do all of us readers some good.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Absolutely!  After these first two books, Clare Vanderpool has become an auto-read author for sure–I only hope that she branches out a little in the construction of her next book.

Recommended for:  Fans of Huckleberry FinnMoon Over Manifest, or Stand By Me.  It’s an ideal story of a journey and friendship.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  This book made me miss crew like crazy!  Here’s me in my four (I’m 2 seat, which is second from the left) in college.  I can’t even describe that sound of a boat gliding through the water that I love so much.  Do any of you row?

PLU Crew 4

Get a second opinion:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “Adult reader me thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down. Parent-teacher me thinks it will be a difficult sell.”
Great Imaginations – “The characters really opened my heart and the story made me see middle-grade in a new way.”
The Book Smugglers – “I found Navigating Early to be a quiet, hopeful, beautifully rendered story.”

I’ve also reviewed:
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool


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  1. Wow, this book looks great! I haven’t read Moon Over Manifest, but I’ll definitely be checking this one out. I love historical fiction and character driven stories, so this looks right up my ally. Great review!

  2. Moon Over Manifest was one of my favorite reads! I haven’t read this one yet, even though I was approved on Netgalley. That’s too bad it is so similar to Moon, though.

    Thanks for the review.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, you SHOULD really like it if you loved Moon, Quinn, but obviously I was pretty put out that it seemed so formulaic in kind. I’m excited to read your thoughts when you get to it!

  3. Asheley says:

    HMM. This is interesting because I’ve read one other blog post in which the reader was not impressed with this book at all. It made me sad because you KNOW how I feel about Moon Over Manifest. BUT BUT BUT here you give me hope!

    Also, you are SPOT ON about that cover. That team deserves some awards. I’d hang that thing up too. It is so pretty.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, but did that other reader enjoy Moon Over Manifest? I do feel like these books aren’t for everyone. Both can be extremely slow in places, and they’re very introspective–not what many readers look for in middle grade, BUT I really hope you give it a go because I really think it’s just as good as Moon Over Manifest. And yeah, I could stare at that cover all day. :)

  4. I absolutely adore books set in this time period – and I’ve been on an Aspergers/Autism kick lately (since I’m convinced my nephew is on the spectrum) so this sounds like one I need to grab!!

    -Jac @ For Love and Books

    • Heidi says:

      My nephew is on the spectrum too, Jac! I’ve definitely been reading more autism related books since I’ve had him in my life, and I do think they help to remind me how he thinks and what he needs. I hope you do grab this one, it’s fantastic. It IS historical fiction, but it’s really almost timeless.

  5. I feel like the cover for this book is one that is very similar to a controversial book…yes? No? I don’t know, but I feel like I’ve seen mixed reviews of this for some reason when it sounds absolutely remarkable! While the slow start has me cringing (I have become SO impatient these days!), I feel like this is one I just have to give a try, especially since I’m enjoying A Face Like Glass so much! (Seriously, I am DRAGGING out the last 20% because I don’t want it to end! SO GOOD!) Although, I do want to ask, should I read this book or Moon Over Manifest? Both sound similar and it’s clear that some of your negative feelings towards this book are merely because you read Moon Over Manifest first, so I’m torn. If it doesn’t matter, then I’ll probably just check out Moon Over Manifest first, but if you think it’s better to read this first, then I probably will. Amazing review, as usual, Heidi!(:

    • Heidi says:

      Is it? If so, I’m not sure which book that would be. I can understand why there’s mixed reviews on this one. Like I said, the start is pretty slow, some people probably won’t enjoy the character Early, will find the coincidences too cutesy, or the general story too introspective. It’s not what a lot of middle grade readers look for, BUT, I couldn’t recommend you trying Vanderpool’s writing more, both her books have been wonderful. I’m actually torn on which to tell you to read first! Like I said, it bothers me that they’re so similar in layout, but I really think they’re both very good. I WOULD probably start with Moon Over Mainfest if I were you, it’s a bit lighter and more fun. :)

      Also: SO HAPPY YOU LOVED A FACE LIKE GLASS!!! Seriously, doing cartwheels here. And ALL of her books are that good. It’s kind of remarkable.

  6. I am curious which book Keertana means, too. Hmm!

    Great review, Heidi. I have heard many good things about Moon Over Manifest but haven’t had a chance to read it yet–it’s interesting that the author chose such a similar theme for her follow up.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I was really put out that they were so similar. Both really well done though! I DO prefer Moon Over Manifest at the end of the day.

  7. Brandy says:

    ” This is the nuance I love to see in Middle Grade. Vanderpool doesn’t write down to kids, she writes with introspection as one of them, imparting lessons with actions that could do all of us readers some good.”

    I agree with this. I wish she would do it in fewer pages though. (Like Rebecca Stead did with Liar & Spy.) The cover, plus length, plus synopsis is going to make this one a hard sell with kids. I’m going to try my hardest though.

    • Heidi says:

      YES, I can totally see this one being a hard sell, Brandy. It is LONG for a middle grade. I’ve read longer middle grades that didn’t feel it because they were light and fast paced enough, but this one certainly is not. I loved it, but I can see a lot of kids just not being interested in it. Also, as similar as it was to Moon Over Manifest, it was lacking the humor and fun that I found in that book, so the first should still be more appealing to many kids.

  8. elena says:

    Oh this sounds like an interesting MG read! I’ve never read anything but the author but I get wary when books seem awfully similar to each other. They can also serve as comfort reads (e.g. Sarah Dessen) though. I love middle grade reads with nuance.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! You’re right, these type of authors make for great comfort reads. I usually turn to rereads for comfort, but if you have an author like this you can select something new that you know will be along the same path that you’ll enjoy. Vanderpool writes fantastic middle grade though, I hope you give her a try!

  9. Reynje says:

    This sounds gorgeous, I definitely need to check it out. I’ve seen Moon Over Manifest around but never seem to get around to reading it.. your review has convinced me otherwise :)

  10. I took an intro to rowing course with my dad a few summers back and LOVED IT. The feeling of being on the water is just amazing. He got really into it and bought an erg, so now I do that when I watch TV sometimes and just stare at the lake out my window:) *sigh*

    Vanderpool is coming to Seattle in a week or two–didn’t you see her at Books of Wonder recenly? I think she was in that all-star panel you went to but I could totally be making that up. Even though I haven’t read Moon or this one yet, I think I might go. You make her books sound like what Gary D. Schmidt’s Wednesday Wars & Okay for Now are like to me…and that’s special.

    • Heidi says:

      I thought you had said that you rowed before! I LOVE being out on the water, and the sick person in me even misses having ergs around (wtf, my gym doesn’t have them!). The lake is gorgeous from Kirkland though (Lake Washington if I remember right?)! We used to row at American Lake which is down by Tacoma.

      Vanderpool was not part of the Newberry panel I went to at Books of Wonder, though it would have been great to see her! I think you’d really like her work, Flan…and CLEARLY I need to read Gary D. Schmidt already. I probably get them on audio one of these days.

  11. VeganYANerds says:

    I still haven’t read MOM, but I want to, and now I want to read this as well. The cover is just stunning!

    It’s funny how some authors can write the same book over and over again, but they’ll still be enjoyed (for me it’s Sarah Dessen).

    And I love that you included your rowing photo! I didn’t row, but my sis did and we had to go to regattas with school. Also, I always find it hard to imagine living inland, with no sight of the ocean :)

    • Heidi says:

      I love this cover!

      That’s awesome that your sister rowed! I didn’t even know what a regatta was before college. The ocean pretty much freaks me out, though I have swam in it a bit more since I’ve been living on a (very big) island for the past 4 years. I miss my mountains.

  12. I’m trying to read more middle grade fiction, and this is going to the top of my list! The Pi angle and the boy with Asperberger’s makes this appealing to me. Great review!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! And I’ll be honest, this is one of only two books with an autistic character that I have been able to enjoy (the other was Vivian’s The London Eye Mystery). I hope you do check it out!

  13. Weirdly enough, I really enjoyed the slow, meandering pace of this novel. I loved the voice and felt everything about it was wonderfully authentic.

    I really, really loved this book. Glad to see you did too, Heidi. I am going to try to read Moon Over Manifest this year because that book has been on my tbr for some time. When I saw this author come up on NG for her newest, I had to request it. Since I liked it as much as I did, I know I have to read MOM now.

    Keertana, what book are you talking about?

    • Heidi says:

      I can’t wait to see what you think of MOM, Kara! I’m so glad you plan to read it after reading this one (and also very interested to see your reaction with that reading order since I was so curious about that). I didn’t mind the slow pace, but I think it will stop many readers before the story really gets going.

  14. […] Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks: “This is the nuance I love to see in Middle Grade.  Vanderpool doesn’t write down to kids, she writes with introspection as one of them, imparting lessons with actions that could do all of us readers some good.” […]

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