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Review: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early
By Clare Vanderpool

Delacorte Press (Random House)

ISBN: 9780385742092
Grades 5-8
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When Moon Over Manifest won the 2011 Newbery Medal, it took everyone off guard. Any time a debut novel receives that sort of recognition, the followup isn’t just a followup. It’s also a form of validation. With the occasionally vexing, often exquisite Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool reasserts herself as an author of sizable talent.

It’s 1945 and Jack Baker is not in Kansas anymore. He’s in Maine, sent to boarding school after the death of his mother. It’s an adjustment. Things are different, but nothing is as different as Early Auden, an outcast savant obsessed with his brother, thought killed in WWII, and the number pi. He sees an elaborate story of Pi in the endless chain of digits. When Early sets out on a quest to find Pi by tracking a legendary black bear on the Appalachian Trail, Jack joins him. Their quest brings them into contact with a cast of memorable characters and unexpected, sometimes threatening situations, Early’s story of Pi begins to reflect reality. We soon realize that Early and Jack are each searching for something. While not exactly what they bargained for, both find what they seek.

Vanderpool’s multilayered storytelling is rich, with complex characters and excellent foreshadowing. Details are carefully revealed. Indeed, the measured pace may be trying for some young readers. “Rewarding” is often code for “nothing happens until the end” – that isn’t the case here, but there is a necessary build. The first 3/4ths of the book steadily lays the groundwork for what happens in the final quarter, when the pace quickens toward a gripping, meaningful conclusion where all the plot threads are skillfully tied up. Readers who invest in the story will be left satisfied.

The Odyssey must have been an inspiration, with parallels evident between Homer’s epic poem and the quests of Pi and the central characters. Heck, there’s even a cyclops (of sorts) in the form of backwoods logger/pirate MacScott. It’s a journey book, and everything that happens along the way happens for a reason.

There were elements that took me out of the story. First, Jack as the narrator. I occasionally found myself thinking “if this is a 13 year old boy, he’s the world’s most self-reflective, mature 13 year old”. In these moments it felt like I was reading the author’s thoughts instead of the character’s. Second, Early’s story of Pi’s amorphous journey. It felt, at times, like when someone provides you with a detailed retelling of the dream they had last night. It may be important and contain greater meaning, but it doesn’t always make for engaging storytelling.

But those are fairly small quibbles in the grand scheme. As a whole, this is an impressive read. The plot and characters are expertly crafted, resulting in lasting emotional impact. It’s a book that will undoubtably be in the discussion for the best novels of the year, and I tend to agree.

Review copy from the publisher.

Also reviewed by Sturdy for Common Things, A Year of Reading.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I read this galley back in the fall before anybody was talking about it. At first it totally drew me in, at least until they left on their adventure…. but the more I read it, the more I realized that I would have a really hard time getting the target audience to read it. I felt Early’s stories of Pi went on large tangents and I found myself trying to even figure out where I was in the story?in the end it just got so unrealistic that I found myself just wanting to finish it to get it over with.

  2. I’ve already talked about my frustrations with this book at Heavy Medal and on my own site. It’s a decent story. The writing is lovely. But the idea that a respected mathematician could have a “theory” that pi actually ends, and that the “theory” could be swayed by an error in the digits someone calculated of pi — that is totally ludicrous. She seems to know that pi is actually irrational (based on the author’s note at the back), but did she know that it was proven to be irrational (and therefore end) in 1761? A modern mathematician would never ever be invited to discuss why he thinks, based on an apparent pattern in calculated digits (which is not a proof), that it is not irrational. And there’s no way that finding an error in the calculated digits of pi would mess up an actual “proof” about pi.

    Mathematicians who think they’ve found a pattern make a “conjecture,” not a “theory.” If they can prove it, it’s a “theorem.” That the digits of pi never end is a Theorem, proved in 1761. Ever since then, no mathematician would ever make a conjecture to say they do end. If they did, we all know they are wrong.

    Urgh. I grant you I have specialized knowledge — a Master’s degree in Math. That’s why it bugs me so very much, and I have to accept that it won’t bug a whole lot of people. But if someone with specialized knowledge of rowing said the rowing part of the story was incorrect and could never ever happen, wouldn’t that be worth some weight? I grant you, kids probably won’t notice the error. But it bothers me they might think this portrayal is actually how mathematical proofs work. The part about the digits of pi ending could not have conceivably happened in 1940s America.

    So I hate to be the negative person pointing out a flaw. And I only review books I like on my website — and I DID review this one. But the more I think about it, the more it bugs me. There are many scenarios where Early’s amazing calculating ability and knowledge of pi could have impressed people. (Find more digits? Find an error in published digits?) But as the scenario with the math professor was portrayed, it Could. Not. Happen.

  3. I saw Clare speak in Needham and bought a copy which she kindly autographed. I need to read now and am eager to after your review! Plus, this book sounds perfect for Pi day. Can I link to your post (my Pi day post?). 3/14.
    Thanks Travis!!!

  4. Thanks for the shout out, Travis! Glad to hear you enjoyed the read as much as I did!
    Have a great rest of your week :)