About the Book

Title: Navigating Early
Published: 2013
Swoonworthy Scale: 2

Cover Story: Elusive Unicorn
BFF Charm: Yay!
Talky Talk: Grown-Up
Bonus Factors: The Odyssey, The Great Outdoors
(Anti)Bonus Factor: River Tam
Relationship Status: Long-lost Little Brother

Cover Story: Elusive Unicorn

Hark! A cover that depicts the contents of the book and is not hugely embarrassing! I had heard tell of such wonders, but I was beginning to doubt the veracity of these rumors. I guess it is possible to design a decent book cover.

The Deal:

In the summer of 1945, John Baker III has the misfortune of attending his own mother’s funeral. Also in attendance is Captain John Baker, Jr, a man that Jackie (the third), hardly knows. His father has spent most of Jackie’s life in active naval duty, while his wife and son remained home in Kansas. Now Jackie is being uprooted and moved to boarding school in Maine, where he finds a strange friend in Early Auden.

To call Early a classmate is a stretch, as Early rarely shows up. Instead, Early chooses to listen to records in his “workshop” in the upper-school basement, where he builds boats, organizes jelly beans, and obsesses about the number Pi. For Early, the unending sequence of numbers tells a story, an Odyssey-esque quest about a man called Pi. Jackie surprises himself when he agrees to accompany Early on a quest of his own, running away from school and setting out on the Appalachian Trail. Though Jackie isn’t quite sure what they are searching for in the first place, he’s confident that the things they find in the woods are more than even Early bargained for.

BFF Charm: Yay!

Yay BFF Charm

Oh, Jackie and Early. When I first met these two, I was all, “Adoptions all around!” because both of them could use a hug. By the end of the book, I concluded that neither of them were really mine to adopt. Even though they’re both young, alone, and a little lost in the world, they’re also far wiser than their years. But they also each need to realize that they are still little boys in need of someone older to look up to. Someone who is a more functional adult than me. So BFF Charms it is!

Early, as pretty much anyone in 2013 could armchair-diagnose, is on the autism spectrum, but as it is 1945, he’s just a really weird kid. Which is fine, because Early is bizarre and brilliant in a way that doesn’t need labels. He’s just Early. (I mean, it would be nice if someone got the kid an IEP instead of just letting him sit in a basement listening to Billie Holiday records all day, but whatever. At least they’re letting him do his thing instead of putting him in a mental hospital somewhere.) He is obsessive and analytical to a fault, and he sees the world in a way that goes over most people’s heads. Things he says are weirdly clairvoyant at times, which can be a little creepy and off-putting. But despite, or maybe because of all this, he’s infectiously loveable, and I was always willing myself to believe his implausible theories about the world, panicked for the moment things wouldn’t work out as he’d planned.

One of the things I love about Jackie is that he doesn’t treat Early as Other. While their classmates give Early a polite but wide berth, Jackie sees that weird kid as a potential friend. A potentially weird friend, for sure, but everyone has their quirks. Moreover, Jackie is the one who feels like the outsider. With his mom gone, a dad he barely knows, and a school in a place so far from home, the kid needs a good BFF. I’ll happily give him my charm. (But I’ll take that trail map, because I still don’t trust his navigational skills).

Swoonworthy Scale: 2

This is not a kissing book, but there is a sweet, romantic side-plot that deserves a couple of points.

Talky Talk: Grown-Up

So this book is being marketed as Middle Grade. Um… ok. If you say so. That’s like describing Toy Story 3 as a children’s movie. Sure, kids might get a kick out of the Shakespearean hedgehog, but try claiming that target demographic to Early 20s Alix, who is busy weeping in the corner about her own loss of innocence and inevitable mortality.

Vanderpool’s writing is exquisite and layered and weird and grown-up in a way that I haven’t seen in a YA book since The Book Thief. I haven’t read Moon Over Manifest (yet), but the fact that she already has one Newberry under her belt doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Navigating Early is the kind of book that you can read and love on a Goonies level as a kid, but when you re-read it at an older age, you see more and more depth to the story. I wish this book had existed for my dad to read to me at bedtime, so that this time around, I could appreciate all the nuances that went over my head as a kid.

Bonus Factor: The Odyssey

Vanderpool borrows pretty heavily from Homer’s Odyssey in terms of themes and imagery. I haven’t read The Odyssey since I was about 14, so I can’t tell you how closely it resembles the source material. But I have read Ashfall, and the morally-dubious cyclops in Navigating Early is a dead giveaway.

Bonus Factor: The Great Outdoors

When I read books for FYA, I read them with the frame of the book report in mind. I always have my ear to the ground, listening for my bonus factors. Which was why, upon starting this book, I thought, Stargazing! yes, Stargazing will definitely make the cut! And then, Rowing. Rowing is a great bonus factor. Next, Hiking? Damn this list is getting kind of long… Camping? Fly fishing? Bear Tracking? Lumber-Jacking? Is that even a verb? Taxidermy? And finally, Screw it. I’ll just throw a big flannel blanket over the whole thing and call it “The Great Outdoors.”

(Anti)Bonus Factor: River Tam

Early is essentially River Tam, trapped in a 13 year old boy’s body. If you love River Tam, great! Here’s a book for you. If you think she’s the worst plot device that ever happened, that might be a dealbreaker. I would still encourage you to stick it out, though, because this is a beautifully-written book. And we all love Firefly in spite of River’s existence, right? Right.

Relationship Status: Long-lost Little Brother

This book is like the little brother I never knew I had. Now that I’ve met it, I can’t believe it’s been missing my whole life. It’s already so grown-up, I feel like it has more to teach me than any wisdom I could ever impart on it. But now that it’s finally in my life, I’m never going to let go of it.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Random House Children’s Books. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Navigating Early is available now.

Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.