Tur­tle Boy

M. Evan Wolkenstein

  • Review
By – June 21, 2021

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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