Turtle Spring

Turtle Spring is the first book I discovered by Deborah Turney Zagwyn. It remains my favorite. I’m a sucker for those twice-gifted people who paint the pictures for the stories they’ve written. Who better to illustrate the story than the very person who is carrying around the pictures in her head? (Unless that person is me, of course. Although, who knows what could happen if I’m persistent enough? There may come a day . . . )

Anyway . . . back to Deborah Turney Zagwyn. She’s Canadian, living an enviable life of creating beauty (she’s been a printmaker, a wall muralist and a weaver of cloth as well as a weaver of words) in British Columbia with her family and a mish mash of animals. Her twenty-something daughter is now off living her own life, but her ten year old son is still at home. I wonder if they were the inspiration for this story of a middle-grade girl and her new-born brother.

I love the language in Turtle Spring. Zagwyn uses beautiful imagery that lingers in the imagination well after the book is closed.

The main character, Clee, is less-than-impressed with the arrival of her new baby brother. All the adults dote on him — “Aren’t you the lucky one?” everyone insisted from orbits around the crib. Clee felt like a lost moon.” — but Clee’s uncle, Fishtank Hal knows “all about lost moons” and brings a gift for her, a rebel turtle who refused to stay put in her aquarium.

Clee loves her turtle, who lives a contented life in the sunny sandbox – “her split pea eyes . . . smiley slits.” As the days get colder, Clee’s mother suggests she bring the turtle in at night, but they are busy with the squalling baby and Clee forgets. One day, Clee follows her turtle’s scrambling claw marks from the corner of the sandbox to the compost pile and finds her turtle, cold and lifeless, beneath a layer of grass and leaves.

She buries her turtle in the compost heap and spends the long, cold winter in a house “full of baby” waiting for news from her father who has gone away to work. Thoughts of her turtle are never far away as storms rock the house which grows “a shell of snow” and keeps her busy baby brother safely contained while he learns to crawl and explore.

Clee scratches pictures in the window frost for her brother and takes him outside where “winter games were written with mittens and boots on a pad of snow,” although she’s always careful to steer clear of the compost heap.

Spring finally arrives with the news that her father will soon be home and the wonderful surprise of her “patchwork creature’s” emergence from the compost pile.

A School Library Journal review describes Turtle Spring as a “lovely introduction to the concept of hibernation and a gentle look at the bonds that grow between siblings.” I always wonder if authors actually set out to develop the themes that reviewers’ attribute to their work – maybe Zagwyn just had a story she wanted to tell, no themes attached – but, in this case, Zagwyn did write a note to the reader explaining the hibernating ways of red-eared slider turtles and why a compost heap was a very good spot for Clee’s turtle to wait out the winter.

As for “a gentle look at the bonds that grow between siblings,” right from the title page’s first image Zagwyn’s illustrations beautifully portray the developing relationship between Clee and her brother. Before the story even begins, we see Clee dreamily moving through her days: hugging her mother’s swollen tummy, lounging beneath a cloud-filled sky, pondering the stars outside her window. When the story starts, however, we see a very different Clee, sour-faced and sprawling in her usuper’s cradle. As the seasons pass, Zagwyn’s illustrations show the sub-text of life with a baby brother from enduring his noisy attentions while straining to hear her father’s far-away voice on the radio telephone to slowly beginning to show him the lay of the land, first in the confines of their storm-safe house and then out in the wider world of their back yard.

Again, I’m in awe of Zagwyn’s ability to use both words and watercolors to tell a story, but Turtle Spring has an extra special spot in my heart. I’m certain that, over time and many readings, this lovely book played a quiet, but key role in coaxing my own Turtle Dreams out of hibernation.

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