When I first saw the title of my latest read, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, I immediately wanted to substitute the word “Turtle” for “Cheeseburger.” (All of the Parrotheads out there know what I mean!) As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark. Turtle in Paradise, a nominee for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, takes place in Key West in 1935. The Key West we see in this book, however, is not yet the popular tourist destination that it would eventually become. Like every other place in the nation at this time, Key West has been hit hard by the Great Depression, and our main character, a girl named Turtle, has also been hit hard by some major changes in her own life…
When Turtle’s mother gets a job as a housekeeper for a woman who hates kids, Turtle is sent all the way to Key West, Florida, to live with a bunch of relatives she’s never met. Turtle, a no-nonsense eleven-year-old, is not exactly thrilled with the arrangement. It soon becomes obvious that her aunt and cousins–all boys–aren’t what one would call happy about the situation either. But they do the best they can, and Turtle soon adapts to life in the Keys.
Turtle learns a lot about the family her mother left behind. (It seems she’s related to nearly everyone around her. The road she lives on is even named after the family.) She meets cousins and a grandmother she never knew she had. She goes on outings with the rambunctious boys in the neighborhood and discovers all kinds of things–how to care for whiny babies, nicknames for nearly everyone in the community, and how to make people think there’s a ghost playing tricks on them.
Turtle teaches the boys a thing or two as well. She even leads them to a treasure that will change their lives forever. But just as Turtle is finding a home and family in her own personal paradise, something–or someone–comes along that could turn her world upside down once again. Read Turtle in Paradise to discover how one girl finds a way to hold on to the things–and people–that really matter.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, partly because it didn’t really feel like I was reading historical fiction. Yes, there were historical details that added to the story. (I especially enjoyed the Ernest Hemingway cameo.) At its heart, though, I thought this book was a story of how one girl dealt with the changes in her life. She adapted to a completely new situation, and she eventually grew to love her extended family and the new setting in which she found herself.
I adored the character of Turtle. Unlike girls in a lot of children’s books, Turtle definitely didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses. She was a realist–some would even say a pessimist–and she was often brutally honest with those around her…kids and adults alike. She used her wits to get by, and she didn’t sugarcoat things. She wasn’t a girly girl, and she got right in there with the boys when they romped around the Keys.
I wasn’t terribly impressed with most of the adults in this story–particularly Turtle’s mom and aunt–but I think a lot of that can be attributed to what life was like in 1935. When adults are worried about being able to pay the bills and support a bunch of kids, I guess there’s not a lot of room to be overly sympathetic and sensitive. I would have liked more resolution, though, regarding Turtle’s father and her mom’s boyfriend. There’s more story to tell there.
All in all, I think Turtle in Paradise is a fine book for readers in upper elementary on up. Even adult readers will appreciate the bits of nostalgia offered in this book–The Shadow, Little Orphan Annie, etc.–and this book could lead to further reading about what life was like in different parts of America during the Great Depression. Turtle in Paradise is yet another wonderful summer read, and I think kids of all ages will enjoy it!
If you’d like more information about Jennifer L. Holm and her amazing books (including the insanely popular Babymouse series), visit http://www.jenniferholm.com/. Happy reading!