Navigating Early – I love it.

Like most girls of my generation, I grew up slightly in love with the all-boys’ prep school movies of the late 20th century. “Dead Poets’ Society” was obviously our favorite, and I like to think I recognized the genius of Robert Sean Leonard long before he appeared on “House.” Thus, when I found out that Clare Vanderpool’s latest novel, Navigating Early (IndieBound/Amazon), was set in an all-boys’ prep school in New England, I figured I would like it.

books for middle school, navigating early review

Several years ago, my mother’s cousin sent her home with a copy of Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (IndieBound/Amazon), which all three of us loved. Navigating Early is similar in that there are some fantastical elements within a more realistic narrative. Loosely framed within the style of an epic journey, Navigating Early follows two main characters – Jack and Early – whose lives have collided at a boarding school where neither particularly fits in. World War Two looms in the background, but seems quite remote from the rural Maine coasts and woods where the action of the novel occurs.

Today, we would consider Early autistic, but within the historical framework of the novel, he is just thought eccentric and difficult. Early’s particular fixation is on the number pi, and the elaborate storyline he has created to explain each of its digits. Jack falls into friendship with Early, and the two boys set out on a quest through the woods that eventually leads to some very unique characters and dangerous situations.

I think one of Vanderpool’s greatest strengths as a writer is creating characters that are relatable despite having some very singular qualities. Both main characters have lost their mothers, but they come to terms with that loss in very different ways. Both are struggling to understand the young men they are becoming, but their self-awareness comes at varying costs. Best of all, unlike those found in so many novels that middle schoolers read, these characters resonate with boys and girls, because Vanderpool’s coming-of-age stories transcend the tropes that many middle-grades writers seem to favor.

Increasingly, I am convinced that we kill a lot of novels – or at least the enjoyment that can be found in reading them – by teaching them to death. This is a book with enough going on that it could be ‘taught’ to a classroom, loved by a book group, or devoured by an eager solo reader. Vanderpool’s craft bears studying, and there’s plenty to unpack within the content, especially its convergence with epic verse. For once, I don’t think giving it a closer look would ruin it; rather, I think it would draw out the reader’s thinking and allow for a little more introspection.

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