How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.
Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.
RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.
This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.
His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)
This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!