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 · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.