Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Turtle in Paradise

Author:  Jennifer L. Holm
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Children (May 2010)
Grade Level: 4th to 7th
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Award: Newbery Honor 2011

Description from GoodReads:
Inspired by family stories, two-time Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Holm beautifully blends family lore with America's past in this charming gem of a novel, rich in historical detail, humor, and the unique flavors of Key West.

Life isn't like the movies, and eleven-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She's smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it's 1935, and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle's mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn't like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to stay with relatives she's never met.

Florida's like nothing Turtle has ever seen. It's hot and strange, full of wild green peeping out between houses, ragtag boy cousins, and secret treasure. Before she knows what's happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she has spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of being at the ALA Youth Media Awards Press Conference where the Newbery Award & Honor winners were announced.  Up until the Newbery announcement, most of the books receiving recognition were ones that I was familiar with and many I had read.  And then the Newbery winners were announced.  I sat expectantly, wondering if one of my favorite middle grade books would take home the big prize.  Then the announcement was made.  I was perplexed.  There was one winner (MOON OVER MANIFEST) and four honor books.  I had read one (ONE CRAZY SUMMER), heard of two (MOON OVER MANIFEST & HEART OF A SAMURI), and wondered how I had missed the other two.  It appears that I wasn't the only one surprised by the Newbery Committee's selections.  Even my wonderfully stocked local indie bookstore seemed to be caught short without some of the award winners.  Fast forward two weeks later, I have now acquired all of the books that won and I am carefully reading through them.  However, I am going to share with you one of those "how had I missed this" books - TURTLE IN PARADISE.

Jennifer L. Holm, well known for her Babymouse series and a previous two-time Newbery Honor Winner,  takes a step back into her family history to create the story of 11 year old, Turtle living in Key West in 1935.  When I opened up the book, it was kind of late and I intended only to read a chapter or two to get a feel for the book; however, before I knew it, I had read over half the book.  From the first chapter in, Turtle captures your heart.  She is spunky and tells it like it is.  There are no stars in this young girl's eyes but as the reader you don't seem to mind because there is plenty of life and spirit in Turtle.  I found myself chuckling aloud at some of her comments.  When Turtle finds herself in Key West at the small home of her mother's sister (an aunt she has never met) surrounded by 3 boy cousins, and their dog, life is about to become more interesting. 

Holm does an amazing job creating both Turtle's voice, which the reader gets caught up in right from the first chapter, and her setting.  The heat and humidity of a Key West summer along with the depression era feel comes through in a huge way.  It seems that everyone in this part of Key West has a nickname (Beans, Kermit, Slow Poke, Pork Chop, etc.) and her cousins have a gang, but not your usual gang.  They are called the Diaper Gang because they have a secret formula for curing diaper rash and have created a business out of taking cranky babies out for a stroll. I do have to admit that this part conjured up for me old Little Rascal episodes where Spanky and the Gang had some scheme going on.  It does really make you realize how different life is now 75 years later.  Though if you are interested in knowing the secret ingredient in how to cure diaper rash, you just might want to give the book a read. 

Despite Turtle's initial reluctance to be on Curry Lane, she begins to come into her own and learns that maybe home and belonging doesn't have to resemble a Little Orphan Annie comic strip to have meaning.  I will have to say I was surprised at the ending.  Or maybe more precisely, how quickly the story ended.  Granted I am not a fan of books dragging on and on, but in this case, I wasn't ready to leave Turtle and her family and friends.  If I could have begged for a few more chapters, I would have.  Alas, I have to believe that Holm has her reason for ending it where she does.  The book does include some interesting pieces of history about the area and photographs from the author's family which add a beautiful touch to the book.

How I might use this at school:  I can already imagine this book as a wonderful read aloud with a group of 4th or 5th graders or in a book group discussion.  I would love to see the reaction of the students to Turtle and her cousins and their "adventures".  And it would be interesting to see what they think about the ending.  Children always have a way of surprising me with their insight and questions. 

It would also be interesting to see it as part of a Depression Era unit along with Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, and On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells - all very different books set in the same time period

For more information on Jennifer Holm, you can check out her website

You can also find her on twitter: @jenniholm

* Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays were started by Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe.  You can check out her Marvelous Middle Grade Monday choice and Giveaway Post here