JULY 21:

  • It’s the birth date of John Gardner (1933-1982), A Child’s Bestiary.
  • Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), author of the classics The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms, was also born on this day. Read Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life by Catherine Reef and Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm.
  • On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Read One Giant Leap: The Story of Neil Armstrong by Don Brown, and Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino.

On July 21, 1899, Noble Prize–winning author Ernest Hemingway was born. Although raised in Oak Park, Illinois, during his later years Hemingway lived in Key West, Florida, and Cuba. This booze hound and bullfighting advocate seems an unlikely candidate for an upbeat and whimsical children’s novel. But in 2010 Jennifer L. Holm used Papa in her cast of characters living in Key West during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Eleven-year-old Turtle, like so many during the Depression, knows hunger and chaos. As her mother gets fired from a series of housekeeping jobs, Turtle develops a hard attitude and hard shell. When she gets sent without notice to live with her aunt in Key West, it at first appears that Turtle has been shackled with boy cousins and a grandmother from hell. But then the young girl slowly begins to fit into this poverty-stricken but quirky community.

In Key West food can be found in the water or on trees, exotic fare wonderfully described by Jennifer L. Holm’s writing. And Turtle begins helping the Diaper Gang care for babies. Everyone boasts a strange name like Slow Poke or Pork Chop. Everyone has a strange bit of Key West lore to convey to Turtle, who begins to realize that her cousins and grandma aren’t as terrible as they first appeared. She even discovers a map for pirate treasure and with her new friends actually digs some up! For a short time it looks as if Turtle will be living on easy street indeed. All does not end as anticipated. But Turtle finds in this summer in Key West something more important than money—a family she can love and who care for her in return.

Engaging characters, a fascinating plot, and an exotic setting all helped garner excellent reviews and a Newbery Honor for Turtle in Paradise when it appeared in 2010. But this is one of those books that seems to gain a larger following each year, a favorite of children and adults alike. Holm merely suggests at details of relationships long past, allowing readers to fill in their own details. And she has two wonderful scenes when Turtle gives some writing advice to Papa Hemingway. A great fan of comics, she informs him that he will never be famous unless he writes one. Well, as we know, Hemingway failed to take that advice. But after reading Turtle in Paradise, you may begin to wonder, as I did, what he might have written if he had been a graphic novelist.

If you haven’t done so already, pick up Turtle in Paradise, a perfect summer read for ten- to twelve-year-olds about a very special summer in Key West.

Here’s a passage from Turtle in Paradise:

“What happened next?” the writer fella asks me, smoothing his mustache.

I lean forward. “That’s when the rats showed up, Mr. Hemingway.”

His eyes bulge out. “Rats?”

“Hundreds of them! They were crawling all over us. Worst thing you ever saw!”

Slow Poke strolls up. “Hundreds of rats, you say! Strange how that didn’t make it into any of the newspaper accounts,” he muses.

“Writers never get the story right,” I say.


Originally posted July 21, 2013. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, Family, History, Newbery
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Turtle in Paradise


  1. Charlie Otting says:

    I read this daily, with great enjoyment. Thanks. The moonwalk was in 1969, by the way.

  2. Fran in Texas says:

    Yes, I believe someone’s told you already; it was 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
    <a href=http://life.time.com/history/apollo-11-to-the-moon-and-back-life-covers-the-1969-lunar-landing/#1

  3. Anita says:

    Fran: Thanks for the reminder. Now corrected.

  4. Lisa C says:

    I first read Jennifer Holm’s book, Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf (hilarious!). When I saw Turtle in Paradise, I was drawn in by the cover and by the author’s name. This is a funny, easy read for 3rd to 5th grade students. Aspects of the book (plucky girl, loose supervision, overactive imagination) reminded me of the movie, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, although Turtle is certainly not a sweet little doll!

  5. Brian says:

    I liked Turtle in Paradise so much I reread it while visiting the keys and went snooping around in Key West to find some of the locations. I included images in my review: http://goo.gl/hXjO1G

    I also created a chapter by chapter resource for the book to use with my students that includes historical images and background information. http://goo.gl/ekU0Ml

    Love that book!

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.