fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

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!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Two books by Nicola Yoon!

The parent education series that brings authors, clinicians, speakers, and other experts to our area is one of my favorite things about where I live- at one of the last events I attended, the director let us know that they’d just confirmed booking Tara Westover, author of Educated, for next year! Super excited about that. But next week, young adult author Nicola Yoon will be here, and since I’m never one to miss out on an author event, I prepared by reading both of her books.

First up was Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015), because I own a lovely hardcover copy which I snagged at a used book sale last summer (right after I learned she’d be coming here). Madeline is stuck in the house- literally and quite permanently, a victim of SCID, commonly referred to as Bubble Boy disease. Her mother, a doctor, cares for her with the help of a visiting nurse; the house is equipped with an airlock, a mega-air filter, windows never open, and almost no one ever visits. Madeline does her schoolwork mostly online and spends her days reading, until a new family moves in next door. Olly, the cute teenage son who catches Madeline’s eye, begins to awaken in Madeline the desire for a bigger life, a life outside her bubble, but the risks she takes will end up revealing some long-buried secrets and truths about the health of her family.

After I finished that, it was off to the library to grab their copy of The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte Press, 2016). In a novel that’s reminiscent in certain ways of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, two teenagers with different backgrounds and ways of looking at the world meet and fall in love in the twenty-four hours before one of them is due to be deported. It’s a race through New York City, a journey to the heart and soul of identity, family, culture, home, and what it means to fall in love and make yourself vulnerable to another person.

Between the two books, I preferred Everything, Everything, even though I called the twist pretty early on. Madeline is a sympathetic character, and I loved the premise of a character who isn’t allowed to live in the normal world. Carla, her nurse, was my absolute favorite; without her, the story would never have gotten legs, and her willingness to take a chance, to defy Madeline’s mother (and her exasperation with her teenage daughter!) made her complex and realistic. Olly’s situation lends even more credibility to the story, and the culmination of it all is nearly perfection.

The Sun Is Also a Star was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it quite as much. While I respected Natasha’s commitment to science and logic (and understood her reasons for doing so), at times, her denial of the importance of emotion annoyed me, and her constant chirping of science facts was tiresome. Daniel is pretty great all around, but just like Nick and Nora, I didn’t find the premise of the book to be entirely realistic. I’m well aware of and remember acutely from my own teenage years the huge emotions that adolescents are capable of, but having these two fall that hard for each other so quickly, when Natasha is trying to square up her family’s situation…I couldn’t *quite* buy that she’d have the mental space for that at that particular time.

So now I’m ready and prepared to listen to Ms. Yoon speak next week! (That is, if coronavirus or the stomach virus with which my daughter is currently plagued doesn’t take us all down…) I’m glad I got these two read beforehand, because once again, I’m so far behind in my reading. I do have these two books and my library book discussion group book done for the month, though, so there’s that, which is nice. 😉

Are you often able to attend author events? I used to go to them fairly frequently when I lived in the Nashville area, especially when the Davis-Kidd bookstore still existed and hosted them (*pours one out for Davis-Kidd, which was an excellent store*). There’s a local-ish store here that plays host to a ton of amazing contemporary authors as they pass through on book tours, but I haven’t managed to make it over there yet; most of the author appearances are at times when traffic would make it difficult for me to get over there. But one day… Most of the events I attend now are through this parent education group (anyone of any age is welcome to attend; it’s not just for parents), so I very much appreciate its existence!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.