Background: Turtle in Paradise was already on my "to be read stack", but I bumped it up a bit last month after it won a Newbery Honor, author Jennifer L. Holm's third. I loved Jenni's Penny from Heaven (review), and I'm a loyal fan of her Babymouse series (see here, for example), written with her brother, Matt Holm. Although I do know Jenni in person, I believe that I'm still objective about her books, which I discovered before meeting her.
Review: Turtle in Paradise is historical middle grade fiction set during the Great Depression. Eleven-year-old Turtle has been living with her single mother, a housekeeper, in New Jersey. When Turtle is sent instead to live with her mother's relatives in Key West, she finds a very different world. She learns about everything from "Conch" foods to the art of fishing for sponges. And she learns, for better and for worse, what it means to be part of an extended family.
I think that my favorite thing about this book is how realistic the relationships are. Turtle's tired aunt takes her in, but is patently un-thrilled to have another mouth to feed. One of her cousins (the one who loses his bedroom to her) is downright hostile. And her grandmother is well-known for being a mean, cranky old lady. Turtle does develop bonds with her relatives, but this happens slowly and naturally over the course of the book. (There's a faint echo of Anne Shirley's relationship with Marilla Cuthbert).
And I do love Turtle. She's strong and smart and wise beyond her years (though the reader may figure a few things out before Turtle does). She's got a great voice, pragmatic, with a keen vision and a dry sense of humor. She's rather cynical, as one might expect from a kid growing up during the Depression. Here are a few examples:
"Mama's always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they're there, bright as sunshine -- charming Mama, buying me presents -- and the next they're gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying." (Page 6)
"What is it with folks always talking about where they're from? You could grow up in a muddy ditch, but if it's your muddy ditch, then it's gonna be the swellest muddy ditch ever." (Page 12)
"In my opinion, the fellas who make Hollywood picture are really just salesmen. Instead of peddling girdles, they sell thrills and chills, and folks eat them up. Not me, though. I'm no sucker. I know there's no such thing as giant apes climbing skyscrapers or mummies walking out of tombs. But just try telling that to the boys." (Page 123)
"What is it with boys and fighting? I'm amazed any of them get to be grown-ups the way they're always going at it." (Page 146)
The Key West setting is conveyed through Turtle's experiences, and through dialog, rather than via extended narrative descriptions. I think that this makes Turtle in Paradise quite kid-friendly. Although much of setting and many details of the book are based on true stories from the author's family history, Turtle in Paradise never for a moment feels like a book written to spoon-feed history to kids. Instead, the author's note at the end comes as a wonderful surprise. As in 'Wow, a bunch of these things (including a hurricane) are real. Cool!'
Turtle in Paradise is a book that you'll try to read quickly, because you want to know what happens next to Turtle and her cousins. But you'll find yourself slowing down to appreciate details, like Turtle's dislike of Shirley Temple, and the matter-of-fact way that several of the boys in the story take care of the neighborhood babies. You'll mull over hints('Hmm, is that writer fella who I think he is?'), and drool over Mrs. Soldano's delicious lunches.
In short, Turtle in Paradise is everything a reader could want in a novel. I can see why the Newbery committee picked it for an Honor. As for me, I look forward to reading it aloud with Baby Bookworm when she's older. Highly recommended!
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 11, 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).