I was in the "Moon over what?!" group when Clare Vanderpool's Newbery win was announced. I immediately sought out out and read Moon Over Manifest and... well... I didn't agree with Sam Bloom.* It was good, but not Newbery good.
Then Sam (Eddington) read her follow-up, Navigating Early. He didn't like it. When he described the plot to me, it sounded ludicrous, but other people seemed to like it, so I put it on my "give it a chance" list. And finally, I did.
In the grand Cooperative Children's Book Center tradition, I'll start with the good.
Vanderpool does setting really well here, better than she did in Manifest, I think, and setting was one of the strongest aspects of that book. She captures both the boarding school and the deep woods of Maine effectively, and even gives a sense, in flashback, of the wide vistas of the Kansas prairie.
The side plots are intriguing as well - all of the people that Jack and Early meet in the woods, and the ways their stories entwine. The dream-like nature of those encounters, and the way they advance the plot and the theme, reminded me of Breadcrumbs.
In terms of integrating what I'll call the Pi Story Plot with the realistic plot though, I think Vanderpool fails where Ursu succeeded. It's just not made clear, either explicitly or implicitly, how the reader is meant to categorize that whole story. Is Early clairvoyant, reading the actual future in the (erroneous, but that's another story) numbers of pi? Is magic at work? Nothing about the tone of the rest of the story suggests that we should take it as magical realism. It's just confusing. Narrator Jack tells us that his mother used to say that "There are no coincidences. Just boatloads of miracles." Are we supposed to take that at face value? I think a series of miracles makes for some weak plot scaffolding.
I'm also troubled by Early as a character. In the way his disability advances the plot and brings about a revelation for the non-disabled character, he felt a bit like a one-dimensional Magical Disabled Person to me (especially in contrast to Oscar from The Real Boy, whose disability is just one facet of his identity). I really, really hated the way he formed an instant rapport with everybody they met, like some kind of autistic Pollyanna.
Finally, there are a few too many instances where Vanderpool drives home her point by telling instead of showing. After the encounter between Jack and Mrs. Johanssen, he asks himself, "But how had her words meant so much to me, when she was speaking them to the son she thought had returned? Because she let me hear them as if they were being spoken to me. And I guess, in a way I let her speak to me as if I were her son." Revelations are not so effective when you have to spell them out.
In the end, I was left feeling the same frustration I felt after reading Moon Over Manifest: Navigating Early is almost a great book, but it never quite comes together.
*Known affectionately around the About to Mock ranch as "Sam Over
Manifest". We'd still love to sit down over drinks sometime and pick
his brain about that book.