I love stories about girls so this book in Random House Graphic’s lineup for summer certainly strummed up interest. Adapting the 2010 best-selling Newbery Honor-winning novel, author Jennifer L. Holmes (Penny From Heaven, The Babymouse series) returns to remake this Turtle in Paradise for a new generation of readers along with the help of illustrator Savanna Ganucheau with colors by Lark Pien. Set in the United States, during the Great Depression the book centers on Turtle, an 11-year-old who is sent to live with an aunt in Florida that she’s never met before. What follows is a colorful tale of a girl coming out of her shell learning about the wondrous world around her and finding joy and contentment where she only once saw not much.
I’ve always been intrigued by literature set in the past, so knowing that this book was set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression was another selling point. The novel has so many of the markings of that era: Shirley Temple movies are playing at the theaters (Not that Turtle can afford to go), Turtle loves the Archie comics from the funny papers (the thirties were the start of the ‘Golden Age’ of comics) and so many adults are plagued by job security and underemployment in the book.
Turtle’s mother gets a new job as a housekeeper for a woman who doesn’t like children so she and her beloved pet cat Smokey are sent off to her Aunt Minera’s place in Florida. It is a place where her world starts to open up to family she’s never met before and the young girl feels forgotten, neglected, and shipped away to a strange, new place.
There’s a surprising depth to the child characters in particular that really made the book shine. Turtles’ cousins: a gaggle of boys who make up ‘The Diaper Gang’ with friends who babysit the local babies for candy. (The neighborhood kids have a list of fun, endearing nicknames including Pork Chop and Kermit) When the 11-year-old asks the leader of the ragtag children–her oldest cousin Beans why the boys don’t ask for money instead, he replies with a shot of maturity in verbal form, that most of the island is on (government) relief. It is implied that he’s around the same age as her and reading those panels shook me to remind me of the state of the world, of this corner of the country during that time period.
I’ve followed Savanna Ganucheau’s (Bloom, Lumberjanes) career for years and I was pleasantly elated to hear the news that she did work for a graphic novel for younger readers. I love so much of her style choices: from the almost sepia-colored pages for the flashbacks to the variety of expressions throughout the entire book. Panels like Turtle’s face lighting up after she tries Alligator Pear (on a piece of Cuban bread, no less!) for the first time to bigger moments like when the despair on the faces of the gang of kids when a treasure hunt goes wrong and leaves them at the mercy of the outdoor elements. The artwork speaks to Ganucheau’s ability as an artist to not only convey emotions big and small but her research in recreating the past makes the town the kids wander through a treat to look at.
Location is everything! Key West becomes a character in the story as well, becoming more than just the backdrop of this darling tale. The creative team put a lot of work into making this place looked lived in and a place where Turtle starts to eventually feel at home. Lark Pien (Long Tail Kitty, Mr. Elephanter) served up her best as coloring the bright and bountiful place that Turtle finds herself living. A page of folks on a sailboat headed back to the dock after a successful hunt for sea sponges and the immediacy of a scene where Smokey the cat comes to rescue both are well complemented and add to the rich story.
Turtle in Paradise follows in the footsteps of other graphic novel adaptations of successful middle-grade properties in children’s literature such as A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. With each chapter I read, I was eager to read more about our titular character essentially finding her own slice of paradise and seeing the process of her slowly coming out of her shell to enjoy her life, despite her circumstances.
While the book is well-paced with some hilarious pockets of trouble that the kids get into, there’s plenty of memorable, heartfelt moments. It was a real joy reading this overarching narrative that tackles a young girl growing up, coming of age, and getting the chance to meet her family and create her own piece of paradise, more or less. The ending just may throw some readers off, making this a hit or miss. I will say that regardless if you fancy it or not you will understand that it speaks of new beginnings. Some are created and some have been sitting around waiting for a chance to be uncovered.
Turtle in Paradise is available now, wherever books are sold.
Turtle in Paradise
At 256 Pages, Turtle in Paradise feels like a fleshed-out adaptation when it comes to graphic novels for the middle-grade reader in mind. While I haven’t read the original novel, this offering makes me want to with good cause. This is a colorful, emotional ride with laughs and tears included. I believe readers who love stories where girls are centered will be interested in this one.