Review: Turtle Boy

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Ruth Horowitz

Will Levine, a.k.a. Turtle Boy, has a thing about turtles. He’s facing surgery to correct a medical problem that’s making his chin recede, and has inspired his humiliating nickname. When life gets tough, he hides inside a psychological shell. On a more positive note, he’s fascinated by actual turtles – but he collects them illegally from the Back 40, a beloved wild area. Will Will summon the courage to undergo surgery? Will he learn to face life’s difficulties? What will happen to his turtles? Will developers destroy the Back 40? Enter Rabbi Harris. Will needs to perform a community service for his upcoming bar mitzvah, and the rabbi arranges visits to RJ, a wise-cracking, punk-rock drummer teen who’s dying at a local hospital. Can fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting the sick make Will a better, stronger person?

Short, snappy chapters and a lively first-person narrator keep this multiple-thread story moving along. Although Will’s progress from fearful to fierce may be predictable, surprising turns and exciting obstacles keep the plot fresh. Characters are vivid and three-dimensional, with realistic flaws that make them easy to relate to and fun to root for. Strong female characters include a volleyball playing best friend, an activist science teacher, and a teenage turtle expert. Deep questions, such as how to comfort the sick and mourn the dead, how to respect nature, the meaning of courage and of friendship, invite discussion. Plus, descriptions of drumming—including a rendition of Mourner’s Kaddish as a drum riff – will inspire readers to bang out rhythms of their own.

Jewish culture, practice and values permeate this book, which is set in Wisconsin. The Jewish characters are presumably Ashkenazic and white, except for one, who is identified as half Chinese. All are Reform and actively engaged. Portrayals of Hebrew School classes, Torah trope practice, Yom Kippur fasting, Yahrzeit observance, and b'nai mitzvah celebrations are accurate and authentic.

Great writing, a gripping plot, endearing characters and important themes make Turtle Boy a highly recommended read for Jews and non-Jews

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Reviewer Ruth Horowitz is a children's book author and former school librarian. Her picture book SAVING ELI'S LIBRARY comes out Oct 1.