Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer Holm.  Random House, 2010, 177 pages plus historical notes. 

turtle-in-paradise

Reading level: Middle Grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: Ages 10-12

Bottom Line: Turtle In Paradise is a mostly lighthearted tale told in a winning style by a winner of multiple Newbery honor awards.

Turtle’s nickname comes from her hard shell; unlike her mother, she’s not one for sentimentality: Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it. Turtle could pass for a good Calvinist for this observation, but her softening process will soon begin. It’s 1935 and jobs are scarce in New Jersey–so, when her mother lands a position as live-in housekeeper for a woman who doesn’t like kids, Turtle is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle in Key West, Florida–a place that looks to her like a broken chair that’s been left out in the sun to rot.  She soon falls in with the Diaper Gang, a group of her boy cousins and their friends who earn candy by taking care of fussy babies.  Their baby-sitting method is to haul the infants around in a wagon all day, parking the wagon in the shade when they want to get into mischief.  Boys could be boys back then with no consequences, getting into fights and playing practical jokes and taunting pathetic old men in the street. (The difference being that in those days, they generally grew out of it.)  Those were also the days when a kid could find a treasure map in a termite-riddled piece of furniture, “borrow” a rum-runner’s motor boat, and follow the map to a chest of pirate gold on a small island of the Keys. But a kid must also survive life-threatening situations, like being stranded on the island during the deadly Labor Day hurricane of 1935 “with a bunch of dumb boys,” where all Turtle can think of to lighten things up is singing “The Good Ship Lollipop.”

She and her cousins are rescued of course, and the reader may soon feel a Hollywood ending coming on.  But Hollywood comes to a screeching halt when Mama’s beau Archie is spotted boarding a boat for Cuba–alone, except for Turtle’s share of the treasure. When her mother falls apart at the news Turtle discovers her vulnerability: I do have a soft spot. It’s Mama.  But during the summer she has acquired plenty of family who aren’t going anywhere, and some of them are as sweet as Necco Wafers.  Turtle’s cynical attitude isn’t really explored and the boys’ casual cruelties and practical jokes are never corrected. Responsible parents can use their judgment, though–it’s not the business of fiction to teach lessons, but first to entertain (without harm), and second to explore the endless variations and possibilities of this life we’ve been given.  American literature fans will be tickled to recognize an appearance by Ernest Hemingway.

Cautions: Character issues (Turtle’s mom has never married and is attracted to sleazy boyfriends)

Overall Value: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic value: 4
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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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