Everyone thinks 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 (p 3).
It’s 1935 and Turtle’s mom has found a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like children. So eleven-year-old Turtle is sent to live with her Conch relations in the Keys.
Mama told me that Conchs are what folks in Key West call themselves. A lot of them originally came from the Bahamas, where they fished for conch (p 37).
At first, Florida is nothing to Turtle but a hot, sticky place where children run around barefoot, avocados are called Alligator pears and everyone has weird names like Beans, Pork Chop, Johnny Cakes and Slow Poke. But before too long, Turtle settles into the rhythm of life, making friends with the Diaper Gang (a group of boys who babysit the youngest members of the neighborhood for candy payment and zealously guard their secret diaper rash formula) and the town crank, Nana Philly.
Turtle is a wonderfully drawn character. She is one of those children that holds it together because her mother always seems to need taking care of. She’s wise to the world but still hopeful. She’s also young enough to easily let go of her disappointments.
Folks have always told me that I look like Mama. … 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 (p 17).
My only complaint is that our time together felt entirely too short.
Transporting readers to some time in the past and really having them feel that environment consistently without oppressing them can be tricky. But with subtle (Necco wafers) and overt (Shirley Temple) references, I always felt the place and time without it being forced.
Turtle in Paradise is a 2011 John Newbery Honor book.