Summary from Amazon:
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
I’ve mentioned before that I tend to like the Newbery Honor Winners more than the Newbery Winners. I’m not sure why that is, but there’s something about the ALMOST-WINNERS that I just love, whereas the official winners, although wonderful, just don’t make my list of all-time favorites. However, there are exceptions to everything, and Clare Vanderpool is that exception for me. Her Newbery-winning debut, Moon Over Manifest, is one of my favorite middle-grade historical fiction novels. So I was pretty darn excited to give her second book, Navigating Early a read. Since I always seem to get off course when reading, it has taken me quite a bit to actually read Navigating Early. But it was just as good as I was hoping for.
Navigating Early takes place in 1945 in Maine. Jack, around 12 years old, moves to Maine because his mother has passed away. It’s quite a different experience in the all-boy school in Maine, than it was living with his mother in Kansas. While at school Jack gets to know a rather unique boy named Early Auden. Early and Jack end up going on a quest of sorts in the wilds of Maine, and find a lot more than they’re looking for.
Navigating Early isn’t the type of story full of action and fast-paced plot. It’s quiet and soft, but it still packs a punch. Jack is dealing with a lot. His father, back from overseas in World War II, is a bit distant after Jack’s mother has passed away. And being uprooted from Kansas and everyone he knows, to Maine where he knows no one is not an easy thing for anyone to do. But he’s strong and he’s doing the best he can. He’s not always perfect, and sometimes he disappoints Early, but he’s a good kid.
As much as I enjoyed Jack as a main character, my favorite part of this book was Early. Although never directly mentioned in the novel, I believe Early has Asperberger’s Syndrome, a disability on the Austism Spectrum. I love coming across a book that represents the diverse population in some way. Whether it’s ethnicity, religious beliefs, or learning styles, I really enjoy such stories. Vanderpool does a wonderful job of creating Early. Early knows a lot about things he’s interested in, and he doesn’t pick up on social queues that most of us would. But he’s so nice, and he really helps Jack out. And Jack helps Early out as well. Early has Apserberger’s Syndome, but Navigating Early isn’t about Apserger’s. It’s about two boys struggling with losing a loved one.
As I mentioned, Navigating Early isn’t a loud book, but it says a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved both Jack and Early, and I loved seeing these two very different boys learning how to be friends. If you’re looking for something earnest, and middle-grade, you shouldn’t pass up Navigating Early.