Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Reading Through History: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm (2010)

Times are hard in 1935, and Turtle's mother, a housekeeper, finds herself working for a woman who despises children. Unable to afford to leave the job, she sends Turtle to stay with relatives in Key West, Florida. Here Turtle meets the Diaper Gang, a group of boys, including her own cousins, who are known around the neighborhood for their seemingly magical cure for diaper rash. Though the boys initially don't want Turtle to be a part of their club, she soon finds herself caught up in all of their adventures, from working for a rumrunner and taking lunch to the cantankerous Nana Philly to accidentally getting stranded on an island during a hurricane and finding a buried treasure.

My first comment about this book is that the cover is really poor. It is attractive enough, aesthetically, but it does absolutely nothing to sell this story, whose main character is a street-wise, smart-mouthed, and sassy eleven-year-old. The cover suggests an emotional and contemplative story akin to Kevin Henkes's Junonia, or Karen Day's A Million Miles From Boston, and this is anything but that. Turtle in Paradise is funny, entertaining, and a little bit irreverent (with all its references to baby bottoms) and the writing is mostly spirited and joyful, without a lot of tedious self-reflection on the part of Turtle. Sure, there are serious moments, but none deserving of such a bland adult-looking cover. (Had this book been given a more colorful cover, I'd probably have read it when it came out.)

Complaints about the cover aside, though, this book is a quick and enjoyable read that will appeal to both boys and girls in the upper elementary grades. It shares the same memorable writing style as Holms's other Newbery Honor winning historical fiction novels, Our Only May Amelia and Penny from Heaven. Holm has a real talent for bringing history to life through interesting main characters, and Turtle might just be the most memorable of them all.

Though it seemed to me, as I was reading, that there wasn't much history in this book, aside from occasional references to the Depression, Little Orphan Annie and Shirley Temple, the author's note after the story made me realize how reading this book can help young readers imagine what their lives would have been like during the 1930s. It's also interesting to me that this is yet another book on my reading list (along with Hattie Big Sky, Caddie Woodlawn and The Cabin Faced West) that was directly inspired by the life of the author's grandmother. I think kids are always fascinated by fiction based on real life, so this is a definite selling point for this book as well.

Turtle in Paradise is a great first introduction to the difficulties of the Great Depression, and to pop culture from the time period as well. It is also the perfect choice for kids who live in Florida and want to study the history of their state. (Also fun - this comic booktalk of the story from Unshelved.)

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