The main cultural allusions in Turtle in Paradise are to Hollywood films, radio shows, and popular comic strips of the 1930s. The first purpose they serve is to provide a contrast between fantasy and reality. Turtle is always saying that real life is not like the movies and drawing distinctions between herself or the children she knows and the child star Shirley Temple, whom she dislikes. Film references also establish the contrast between Turtle's own realistic, even jaded view of the world and the romantic ideas of her mother, Sadiebelle, who is much influenced by Hollywood and dreams of becoming an actress to escape from poverty.
Cultural allusions also provide a frame of reference and a means of connection for Turtle when she is uprooted from her home and goes to live in Key West among people whom she has never met. When she first goes into the room where she is to sleep in Aunt Minnie's house, formerly occupied by her cousin, Beans, she sees familiar comic strips on the wall, including her favorite, Little Orphan Annie, which makes her feel more at home. Later, when she meets her grandmother, an old lady with a fearsome reputation for hating children, the two find common ground in their shared dislike of Shirley Temple movies.