Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm.
Random House: NY, 2010.
Newbery Honor Book 2011

Turtle is shipped from New Jersey to Key West, Florida to live with her aunt and cousins when her mother takes a housekeeping job with a woman who doesn't like kids. Her mother is hoping for a Hollywood ending, with a new home to share with her new boyfriend. Though her mother's relationships never work out, Turtle thinks this time it might be different - except she's being shipped away. This may seem harsh today, but in the 1930s Depression Era when this takes place it was quite common.

Arriving in the neighborhood, she learns that most everyone on the island is a relative. Her aunt is not expecting her, and there are a horde of boy cousins who are unwelcoming. Turtle is shunted off to the group of cousins, because Aunt Minnie is overworked and needs time to process an uninvited addition to her work.

Turtle spends her days following the boys' Diaper Gang, a club formed for babysitting crabby babies in exchange for candy. The boys ride the babies around in their wagon for a few hours and introduce Turtle to the island inhabitants along the way. When she first arrives, she is clean and has shoes. As she starts to fit in, she loses the shoes and is less particular about her appearance.

One of Minnie's chores is making lunch for Miss Philomena (Nana Philly to the relatives) to give her caregiver a break. An emergency occurs, and Turtle offers to take Aunt Minnie's place. Turtle learns that Nana Philly is just one of the secrets her mother is keeping from her about her childhood. She soon sees why. But she is a determined girl, and she can hold out as long as Nana Philly. Slow Poke is another secret. She comes to appreciate his gentleness, and he is one of the friends she does not want to leave when her mother decides it's time.

The story takes place before Key West is a tourist attraction. It has been hit hard by the Depression. Their own imagination is about all they have for amusement. That and conch fishing, treasure hunting, radio shows, and the occasional movie at the theater. There is a specific treasure that the locals are after, belonging to the pirate Black Caesar. Two other historic tidbits are the big hurricane the kids are caught in while treasure hunting and the highway construction in the Upper Keys which employs Uncle Vernon through the story. Many men did leave their families in search of work during this time.

Historical fiction fans will love the book. Holm conveys the historical feel of the community well and throws in a few characters for interest. Everyone has a wacky nickname, and reading about the Depression always feels like being transported to a distant time. For those not used to historical fiction, it may take longer to be drawn into the story. I like that the community is different geographically; it was interesting to see Florida specific details.

Turtle is a bit blunt in demeanor, but considering she's just been dumped by her mother, she has every reason to be. She does seem to be smart and willing to cooperate or fit in. She's making the best of her life. Other characters maybe could have been developed more, but I totally felt a connection with Turtle. In fact, the only complaint I have is that the story is short. The pace is fine; it needs to move quickly for young readers; but I wanted it to be longer.

Note that the story is based on the author's family history. She has two other Newbery Honor Books that were also based on her family, Our Only May Amelia (2000) and Penny from Heaven (2007). She has a new one out, The Trouble with May Amelia.

related-1930s, Depression, cousins, family life, Key West, Florida, 20th century history, adventure, treasure, hurricanes
RL=4th and up; publisher says 3rd, but the content is serious, so maybe 5th or 6th

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