Two new novels for middle grade readers couldn’t be more different except for one thing: they both concern eleven-year-old girls who have more to offer than first meets the eye.
In Jennifer Holm’s “Turtle in Paradise,” everyone is doing their best to scrape by. It’s 1935, the midst of the Depression, and Turtle’s flighty mother finally has a job as a housekeeper. But her mother’s new boss doesn’t like kids, and her new boyfriend Archie has no room for her, so Turtle is sent far away to Key West, Florida, where her mother’s sister lives.
There this tough, sharp-tongued girl finds a whole new world that’s entirely different from the New Jersey shore she knows. Turtle describes Key West as looking “like a broken chair that’s been left out in the sun to rot.” But it’s also green, covered with vines, brightly colored flowers and palm trees. All the kids go barefoot, most of them are related to her, and news of her arrival is soon all over the island thanks to the “Conch Telegraph.”
She discovers that her cousins Beans, Buddy and Kermit are part of the Diaper Gang, a crackerjack team that specializes in taking care of babies (especially bad ones) and holds close their winning secret formula for diaper rash. Turtle also finds out that the grandmother she thought was long dead is alive and kicking – literally.
As Turtle says, “Mama’s always been a little funny with the truth.” She’s never explained much about Turtle’s father. What Turtle discovers about her parents over the course of just a few months results in a bittersweet turn of events that will give readers hope for Turtle’s future.
Holm includes plenty of local color, from sea turtles to rum-running, and even a cameo appearance by Ernest Hemingway. Her lively story is filled with vividly drawn characters and a strong sense of place. She has based the book on her own family’s roots in Key West, and readers will enjoy the contemporary photos of the places and people she describes.
Melody, the narrator of Sharon Draper’s “Out of My Mind,” is just as feisty as Turtle. She’s smart, too, with a photographic memory and a sharp eye for the quirks of her family and teachers. But no one really knows much about her, because her cerebral palsy leaves her unable to talk, walk or write. She’s sick to death of the preschool lessons she’s been taught for years by teachers who have no idea of her intelligence. She feels as though she’s going out of her mind. But then something changes.
When she gets to fifth grade, her special needs class is, for the first time, mainstreamed into the regular classroom. Even better, Melody gets a computerized communication board that allows her to tell her teachers and her family what she’s thinking and feeling. Recognized by the teacher for her brilliance, she is even included in the school’s Quiz Bowl team. The team makes it all the way to the finals, when two devastating events change everything. Draper, inspired by her own special needs daughter, has written a novel that will grab readers from the very first page.
Kids ten and up will root for both girls, whose stories may not have fairy-tale endings but whose determination and humor will take them far.
First published in the Free Lance-Star on October 12, 2010.