This month we’re talking about our favorite characters. I recently had the pleasure of reading Clare Vanderpool’s new historical middle grade Navigating Early. The book takes place at the end of WWII, and I loved that even though the book is set in a certain era, there were no hit-you-over-the-head era clichés. I’ve found obvious era markers to be a problem in some children’s historical books, and once I saw that this book wasn’t going that way, I knew it was going to be something special. But the real reason the book is special isn’t the setting or even the narrator and ostensible main character, Jack. Jack, who at the beginning of the book is dropped off at boarding school feeling lost and alone, is sympathetic but not particularly unique. It’s when Jack meets Early that the story really gains its heart.
If Early were growing up today, he’d probably be diagnosed with some form of autism, but in the world of the 1940s, he’s not a kid with a “disorder”—he’s just weird. He sits in the basement room he’s commandeered listening to music and doing whatever he feels like, since no one forces him to go to class. He has to listen to Billie Holiday when it’s raining, and he takes everything literally, and he’s always sure he’s right, but he’s also the most friendly and open person Jack meets. We soon learn that Early is obsessed with the number pi and a story he tells about it, and what happens to the numbers as they go on. I confess that I didn’t like the pi story or some of the parallels between it and the main story. I’m just not a fan of coincidences. But I loved Early’s insistence on his story, and how he knew exactly what he had to do, and how he was such a good friend and so earnest and likeable that Jack just had to go along with it. I love it when the weird kid is the hero, and I love seeing a character who could be seen as disabled portrayed as uniquely loveable and intelligent and strong-willed. I understood why Jack was willing to follow Early on his crazy quest into the wilderness because I probably would have done it too!
Cover image: Delacorte Press