Navigating Early

Book review by
Sally Engelfried, Common Sense Media
Navigating Early Book Poster Image
Compelling adventure as two boys cope with loss, loneliness.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 5 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Navigating Early takes place shortly after the end of World War II, so readers may soak up some of the era's qualities, especially the feelings of loss and displacement that lingered among those who had family members in the war. Jack's friend Early is an extremely intelligent boy, what the author calls an autistic savant in her afterword (the term was not used in 1945, so it is not in the text of the book), and his unique perspective on math, music, and stories may open readers' eyes to a different way of looking at life.

Positive Messages

Even when struggling with painful loss, we ultimately have to face the fact that people die and don't come back. Jack and Early's quest contains awe-inspiring mythical elements that lead both boys to profound discoveries about life, death, faith, and love. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jack's friend Early, "that strangest of boys," has a strong moral code, but it often diverges from what most people would consider conventional. Early seems to live in his own world and believes that his brother is alive, even though he was pronounced dead by the Army and he's got the dog tags to prove it. Early's detachment from reality affects his ability to gauge the danger in some of the situations he and Jack get themselves into, yet he also seems to have a deep, instinctive understanding of important moral truths. Though Jack doesn't see any sense in Early's determination to find both his brother and a fierce black bear in the woods, Jack is lonely and lost enough after his mother's death to grasp at the slim hope Early offers him that impossible things can happen. 


The skeleton of a long-missing boy is found in a cave, accidentally shot 20 years earlier. A group of ammunition-smuggling woodsmen take Early and Jack aboard their barge without the boys' permission, then chase them with bloodhounds through the woods after the boys escape. One of the woodsmen later threatens the boys with a shotgun. A man is mauled and killed by a black bear.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Jack and Early go to a bar to confront the woodsman who stole their boat. The men inside are drunk and unfriendly.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that In Navigating Early is an adventure novel by Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Award-winning Moon Over Manifest. Set shortly after the end of World War II, it follows a grieving eighth grader named Jack, who's sent to boarding school after his mother dies. During spring break, Jack and his new friend Early embark on a quest along the Appalachian Trail without letting any grown-ups know. On their journey, they search for Early's missing brother and the Great Appalachian Bear, and they encounter some men who threaten them with a gun. The sense of real danger is tempered by parallels to the story of Pi that Early tells Jack, which gives their quest a mythical, heroic quality.


User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byShaltino June 19, 2019
Parent Written bypeskahea January 22, 2018

Depth on many levels!

This is a great book that takes a while to get into, but kids LOVE it! I read it to my class. Slow at first.....but they loved how two stories are interwoven... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old August 22, 2015

Navigating Early

I had to read this over the summer break and like all summer reading books (except Ender's Game) I read it was pretty bad.If I read it in my free free time... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old March 3, 2015

A good book

I read this as a Battle Of The Books book and it's a very good book. It had an interesting storyline and I loved it. It can be confusing at times but at th... Continue reading

What's the story?

After 13-year-old Jack's mother dies, his father sends him from Kansas to a boarding school in Maine to deal with his grief on his own. he feels out of place at the Morton Hill Academy feels out of place until he befriends Early Auden, a strange boy who seems to come and go as he likes, and who believes there's an important story to be found in the numbers that make up the number pi. Early tells parts of the tale to Jack throughout the book, and though Early insists the story of Pi, a young man named after the number, is true, Jack is skeptical. Still, when Early insists he's going to travel the Appalachian Trail to find the Pi of his legend, Jack reluctantly agrees to come along, and the boys set off on a quest that eerily mirrors the Pi story, complete with pirates, hidden treasures, a giant black bear, and redemption.

Is it any good?

NAVIGATING EARLY intertwines the past and present to create a meaningful and compelling story of two boys dealing with loss and loneliness. As in her Newbery Award-winning Moon Over Manifest, author Clare Vanderpool expertly deals with complex emotions, wrapping them in metaphor and refracting them throughout the cast of characters, so that each is fully realized and even the bad guys reveal their pain. This is not just a psychological exploration, however: It's an adventure story, and the boys' odyssey is filled with enough peril and narrow escapes to keep readers engaged.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why quests are so popular in stories. What other books you've read or moves you've seen have an epic quest at the core of the plot? 

  • Since Navigating Early takes place in 1945, Jack and Early have only a  flashlight and compass with them. If you went on that journey today, what technology would you be sure to take along?

  • Early says you must always listen to Billie Holiday's music on rainy days. What music do you like to listen to when it rains? How about when it's sunny?

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