Ok so I’m falling short of my goal of reading forty books. In my defense, two of the books I read were on the heavy side-one in terms of the sheer number of pages and one in terms of content. Navigating Early, the latter of the two, is written for junior high students, but it is not your average teen fiction. Clare Vanderpool outdid herself on this one. Her themes are so intricately woven, I may need to read it again before I even attempt to help students navigate it.
On one surface, Navigating Early details the adventures of Jack Baker and Early Auden, two would-be friends, who are tracking a Great Bear on the Appalachian Trail in 1945. Look closer, and another layer reveals two characters in the midst of loss and grief at a time in our shared history I’m told we all felt a little lost. Look again, and their journey mirrors that of Odysseus, a classic heroes’ journey. Tired of looking yet? Me neither, because I know when I reread this novel I will see something new yet again.
Jack Baker’s mom has just passed away and his father, a naval officer, has just moved Jack from their home in Kansas to a boarding school in Maine. Feeling overwhelmed with loss and grief, Jack inadvertently befriends a quirky kid named Early. Early is suffering the loss of his brother to a bombing in France during World War II. However, almost immediately Jack recognizes that Early sees the world differently particularly when their math teacher explains that a professor is out to prove that pi, the irrational number, is not in fact infinite. Early sees a story in the number pi, a story that begins to mirror his own life and adventure with Jack. Left to their own devices during a week long break from school, the boys embark on a journey to find the Great Bear in Appalachia and to find Pi. Early believes that his brother who died in the war is still alive. If he can prove that pi is infinite, that he can find the Great Bear, then his brother is still alive. In following Early on his quest, Jack’s grief begins to heal as does Early’s leaving the reader to wonder just who is navigating whom.
One theme not to be diminished, through Early’s perceived quirkiness to see stories, colors, and textures in numbers, Vanderpool explores a theme I’ve touched on in another previous article: how a child’s gifts could be misunderstood by general society. Early argues with his math teacher about the nature of pi being infinite, but he is dismissed as insubordinate. Even his peers give him a wide berth because they just don’t understand him. But his gift reveals the professor’s error and restores pi to its infinite glory. Confused yet?
Clara Vanderpool’s novel Navigating Early could not be more perfectly timed. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, the U.S. educational system is in the process of adapting new learning standards entitled Common Core. Embedded within these standards is a call for advanced level texts and increased rigor. Navigating Early with its complex characters, layered themes, and adventurous plot line fits the bill perfectly, that is if you can…um…navigate it.
Clare Vanderpool can be found online at her WEBSITE
Lisa is the Reading Specialist at a middle school in Tinley Park, Illinois. She has been teaching for eighteen years and earned both a Masters in Reading Specialist and a Masters in Educational Leadership. Books, music, movies, and education are her life!