Summer Fun in Key West: Turtle in Paradise

A pretty cover that captures the summer aspect of the book, but not its rascally spirit

Ah, summer reading! The things I want to get out of a summer read are as follows: a summery setting, preferably with water nearby; a coming of age story; a bit of a mystery, and at least one moment that brings a lump to my throat or a tear to my eye. I want a good story, but I don’t want to work too hard-it is summer, afterall. Please keep in mind that I hold every summer book up to the Gold Standard of summer books, Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson.*

I have been meaning to read Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbury honor winning Turtle in Paradise for some time, and I am glad to have finally got to it. All of my summer reading must-haves are present in this book, and much more besides. During the heigh of the Depression, eleven year old Turtle arrives at Curry Lane, a ramshackle street in Key West, to stay with her aunt while her mother tries to make money as a housekeeper for a lady who hates children. Turtle arrives in a world completley different from her own, with exotic fruit trees, oddly named people (Beans, Slow Poke, Pork Chop, Killie the Horse), scorpions, and rumoured pirate treasure. Just about the only thing she recognizes is the abject poverty that has infected the nation. Pretty soon she has ensconsed herself in daily life, taking care of babies and their diaper rash as part of her cousins’ business venture, The Diaper Gang; engaging in a sort of wild potluck called a cut-up; trying to keep her cat out of her harried aunt’s way; and charming her mean old grandmother and a sea captain named Slow Poke. Turtle is a smart, if somewhat hard-boiled kid. She knows that life isn’t like a Shirley Temple movie or Little Orphan Annie, but when she stumbles upon a potential treasure map, she starts to think that maybe Hollywood endings CAN happen.

It is rare to find a a book with a female narrator that I can hand to a boy and say with full confidence, “you will like this,” but despite what its fairly feminine cover suggests, this book has lots of appeal for both boys and girls. Turtle is plucky and smart and holds her own with the boys. In fact, she is the only female character (other than some moms and grandmothers) of any consequence in the book; all of the major supporting players are rascally boys. Holm references the funny papers that were so popular in the 1930s and she has managed to capture their spirit in the comraderie and hijinx that the Diaper Gang get up to. Think Little Rascals or Newsies.

I love when a realistic setting is so unique and unusual that it almost feels as though you have stumbled into a fantasty novel. Holm’s rendering of Key West in the depression is a fascinating world that is very much rooted in history and authenticity, but is so quirky it feels otherwordly at times. The reader gets to experience Key West through the eyes of an equally bewildered narrator, who is also new to the setting. I loved the afterward, which gave more info on what facts were true and where the author got her inspiration.

My only complaint is that after a fairly big reveal with major consequences, the book wraps up very quickly. I would have liked to spend a bit more time with Turtle after this life-changing incident, just to see how she digests the information and deals with the fall-out. Instead, Holm hints that things will be fine and ends before the reader can ask any questions. I could have used one more chapter to tie things up, but this is in no way deterred from my enjoyment of the book overall. This is a fairly fast-paced story and would make a really fun read aloud for someone who enjoys doing voices. You can read it aloud to children as young as 6, but I think it will be most enjoyed by independent readers, aged 8-12.

Turtle in Paradise is available in paperback from Random House.

*Who has a new book out this fall. I have read it, it is fabulous, review coming soon!

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