Life isn’t like the movies and 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mother gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye and heads off to Florida to live with relatives. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before though. It’s full of rag tag boy cousins, family secrets to unravel . . . and even a little bit of fun. Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of her shell and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Inspired by family stories, three-time Newbery Honor winner Jennifer L. Holm blends family lore with America’s past, in this charming, gem of a novel rich in history, humor, and the unique flavors of Key West.
As an elementary teacher I have a special love for middle grade books. I remember growing up and loving Newberry Award books which I used over and over when I taught fourth and fifth grades. Now as a teacher in Florida, we have our Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award for middle grade books (3-5 grades). These books are always fantastic and all of them deserve the honors they receive. Although every year I say I will read them all, I never seem to be able to. So far this year I read “Turtle in Paradise” by Jennifer L. Holm, and I really loved it.
“Turtle in Paradise” is the story of Turtle who lives with her mother who works as a maid for different wealthy women. Turtle always has to take care of her mother who easily falls in love with the wrong kind of men, and who isn’t very practical about money. When her mother gets a job for a woman who doesn’t like kids, Turtle is sent to live with her aunt who lives in Key West, Florida. Turtle is afraid to leave her mother alone, but hopes that maybe her mother really will begin to take care of herself. That’s whenwe realize that her name signifies her tough “outer shell”. She even lets us know that she never cries.
When she arrives in Key West, Turtle discovers that she has cousins that she never knew anything about. They are a bunch of rude boys, but Turtle is able to hold her own with them. Her cousins have unusual nicknames like Pork Chop, Too Bad, and Beans. It seems everyone in Key West had unusual nicknames at that time. She soon becomes part of their little “Diaper Gang” (the boys are paid candy to babysit) and several adventures ensue. Throughout her time in Key West Turtle discovers other family secrets and along the way discovers more about her herself. There is even a treasure map and adventures at sea.
At the end, Jennifer Holme lets us know that this book was based on the stories that her grandmother used to tell about when she was a little girl growing up in Key West. The fact that it takes place in 1935 Key West is one of the things that makes this book enjoyable. We hear about Little Orphan Annie, Shirley Temple, and The Shadow. There are even references to “Papa” an author who lives on the island (yes, Ernest Hemingway). The 1935 setting means it was a time when kids could wander around the entire island of Key West and no one seemed concerned about it. That was part of the charm of the book. Middle readers can read about a time that was so different from the way things are today.
I believe that this book is worth a read by middle readers and any reader who wants to escape to a time and place when things were slower and simpler. I for one, am hoping to visit Key West soon and see some of the places mentioned in the book.
“Everyone things 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.”
“Mama’s always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they’re there, bright as sunshine – charming Mama, buying me presents – and the next they’re gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying”
“Our eyes are different, though. I think the color of a person’s eyes says a lot about them. Mama has soft blue eyes, and all she sees is kittens and roses. My eyes are gray as soot, and I see things for what they are. The mean boy on the porch has green eyes. Probably from all the snot in his nose.”