Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool – Reviewed by Susie Highley

I missed Early when it was over.


For a week or so in April, I heard Jack Baker and Early Auden tell their story as I listened to the fabulous audio version of Navigating Early. Not only did I enjoy getting to know these characters, but I was amazed by countless lyrical, meaningful passages. Listening to a book on CD in the car doesn’t always make it easy to mark a spot, but many of these quotes really resonated with me.  It was easy to locate them as I delighted in reading the physical book this summer, and I can still “hear” narrator Robbie Daymond’s memorable voice and easily determine if Jack or Early is speaking when I revisit these wonderful words.


I didn’t know much about this book when I started it, and I’m glad.  I think too often reviews and even book jackets give away too much. I’d rather make some of the discoveries myself and experience as many “A ha!” moments as possible. (Maybe this relates to my many years as a science teacher.)  So, my purpose in this review is not to retell the story in detail, but rather to communicate my adoration.


Thirteen-year-old Jack Baker finds himself in a Maine prep school, uprooted from his Kansas home after the sudden death of his mother.  The very first chapter includes the achingly descriptive simile, “My mother was like sand. The kind that warms you on a beach when you come shivering out of the cold water. The kind that clings to your body, leaving its impression on your skin to remind you where you’ve been and where you’ve come from. The kind you keep finding in your shoes and your pockets long after you’ve left the beach.”  This is just one of many paragraphs that could be used as an example with students as they craft their own writing.


Jack’s fellow student Early Auden is unlike anyone he’s ever met before. Today we might say Early has autism, but in the 1940’s, no such diagnosis was available.  Early is a methodical, brilliant, quirky, loyal boy. He even has defined playlists for days of the week: Mozart on Sundays, Louis Armstrong on Mondays, Sinatra Wednesdays, Glenn Miller Fridays, but always Billie Holiday when it rains.  I did find myself looking for Holiday music when it rained; how great is it when a book comes with its own playlist?


The book alternates between the narrative of the boys’ adventures and the legend of pi (the number) as related by Early. He is driven by pi’s order of digits and shares with Jack what the numbers are telling him.  At times I did find my mind wandering a bit during the vignettes with the legend, but perhaps that was because I enjoyed the story of Jack and Early so much.  Early has his mind set on completing a quest necessitated by the saga, one in which Jack somewhat reluctantly takes part. Their journey includes many twists, turns, and memorable characters. Their friendship, tenacity, and ingenuity are all tested


By the time I finished the book, it occurred to me that Jack finds some similarities between Early and his mother, and he recalls and applies advice from her while dealing with his new friend.  At times I even found myself jealous of Early; what would it be like to be able to “tell it like it is” without worrying about some type of filter?  When Early questions something, he bluntly voices his opinion. I also cared for Early because he reminded me of a student with autism whom I got to know very well this year, a boy who frequently amazed, fascinated, and confounded me.  I heard him in Early’s voice, even though Vanderpool explains in the “Author’s Note” that the character is not meant to be representative of autistic children.


Hmm… a book about two down-on-their-luck boys who set out on a journey to a somewhat undefined destination.  Several storylines somehow converge for a satisfying conclusion, with a touch of magical realism thrown in.  Sound familiar?  Seems like this formula has worked before.  It was not until I finished Navigating Early that many parallels between this and Holes occurred to me. Jack recalls his mother saying, “Our stories are all intertwined.  It’s just a matter of connecting the dots… There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.”


For the first time ever, I will be at ALA Midwinter when the Newbery and other awards are announced.  I sincerely hope that I will be hearing Clare Vanderpool’s name that morning.  And, because that will be a Monday, it would be appropriate to hear Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Susie Highley is the library media specialist at Creston Middle School/Intermediate Academy in MSD Warren Township in Indianapolis.  She credits the Nerdy Book Club with introducing her to many wonderful titles that she’s been able to share with her students.  A highlight of this past year was a school visit from Katherine Applegate, enjoyable but poignant because it was shortly after the real Ivan died. She knows she needs to “get her blog on,” but in the meantime you can find her on twitter at @shighley.