Life is not easy in seventh grade, most young readers will admit to that. Will Levine, the protagonist of Turtle Boy, confronts problems of greater intensity than many of his peers. His father has died and his mother struggles to support him emotionally, while also dealing with her own unresolved grief. Will has friends, loves music, and is an aspiring drummer. He also collects and cares for turtles, whom he identifies with. Will has a congenital facial deformity which makes him the object of bullying; Wolkenstein portrays middle school bullying with unflinching accuracy. Will fears the surgical procedures he will need in order to treat his condition, but his perspective gradually changes as he forms a friendship with R. J., a young hospital patient with a life-threatening disease. The ambitious novel balances several different themes with realistic characters, and a challenging philosophical approach to both the end of life and the ability to live in the fullest way possible.
Wolkenstein’s characters are richly drawn and compelling. Will is consumed with self-pity, which seems both justified and defeatist. Middle-grade and young adult readers will appreciate the paradox and become involved in Will’s process of maturing. The natural self-involvement of his age is heightened by the fact that his challenges are indeed more intense than those of his friends, yet his difficulty in recognizing that they also experience pain is an obstacle to overcome. When a Hebrew language class becomes an opportunity for his friend and their male classmates to mock a female friend about her body size, Will seems unable to grasp that she is a victim.
Rabbi Harris is a countercultural father figure: informal, casually attired, and the driver of a Volkswagen Beetle. As he describes his mission, “Long as they don’t mind hanging out with an old hippie, whatever their religion, I’m their rabbi.” Readers might question whether Rabbi Harris’s compassion should also extend to his student, Will. His response to Will’s question of whether R. J. is going to die —“We’re all going to die…But yes, Ralph is going to die sooner than we will” — might be difficult to grasp for someone in Will’s situation.
Will’s obsession with turtles is both a metaphor and a large part of his daily life, described with convincing detail. The process of returning a turtle to its natural environment is made poetic and tangible at the same time: “But there it is. On the other side of the ice, on the opposite side of the universe, where living things die.” R. J.’s impending death is presented with all the tragic particulars of his disease, made all the more poignant by his youth. Will supports his friend as R. J. comes to terms with a life cut short and his own unrealized goals. Wolkenstein invokes Jewish mourning rituals and their personal intensity as Will recites the mourner’s kaddish to the beat of an imaginary drum. Readers will leave the book with that sad rhythm in mind, a testament to Will’s courage. Aided by Rabbi Harris’s omnipresent insights — “You’ve tried to move forward…But you’re still holding on. You haven’t let go.” — Will Levine does push forward with his own strength and ultimately reaches the shore.
Turtle Boy is highly recommended and includes an “Author’s Note” relating the book’s origins to experiences in the author’s life.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.