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Turtle in Paradise – Jennifer L. Holm

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Turtle is ten when her mama gets a job cleaning house for a lady who can’t tolerate children. So she’s shipped off to Key West to live with a family of Currys she’s never met, in a place her dreamy mother calls “paradise.” Turtle knows better, even before she arrives on the steamy island courtesy of a traveling salesman who owes her mama’s current boyfriend money. One looong free ride with Smokey the cat and a chatty hair tonic entrepreneur and a quick introduction to her bratty cousins and surprised Aunt Minerva and she is stashed in a tiny bedroom on Curry Avenue, named for all the Curry clan who have lived there since before anybody can remember. It’s 1935. Shirley Temple is the reigning queen of cinema. Jobs are hard to come by and kids are forced to grow up pretty fast.

Jennifer L. Holm writes a spunky, clear-eyed preteen realist of a kid in Turtle in Paradise, a Newbery Honor book. Turtle knows mama will always believe in silver linings and better days just around the corner. But Turtle squints at what she sees, takes its measure and accepts no guff or fancy promises from anyone. She tags along with her ragamuffin cousins as the boys drag babies around in their Diaper Gang business. She isn’t allowed in the gang so she gets none of the candy they are paid for babysitting and curing diaper rash with their magic formula. But she cons the guy in the ice cream truck out of a scoop with no trouble at all and puts a little fear of the lord—actually fear of Turtle—into those bad boys from Day One.

Life in hot, poor, crowded, neighborly Key West softens Turtle’s tough shell and she acclimates to a new reality with Cuban food, a surprise—and crotchety—grandmother, grown-ups who look out for kids and a few who are too worn down by them to be anything but exasperated. She learns how to go barefoot after her prized shoes are stolen, talks herself into a job sponging and nearly drowns, discovers a possible key to buried treasure and survives a hurricane, stranded on a tiny barrier island. The real treasure has nothing to do with pirate gold and everything to do with open hearts. Turtle finds a bounty of those and knits herself into the fabric of a family like a bright silver thread.

Turtle in Paradise gives children a colorful glimpse of history, a legendary island community, and a young survivor wise beyond her years and sassy enough to brighten economic hardship and displacement with razor-sharp humor.  

Turtle in Paradise   Jennifer L. Holm | Random House   2010