Author M. Evan Wolkenstein Shares 8 Fun Facts About Turtle Boy

Fans of books like Wonder and Smile, we’ve got a new must-read for you! Turtle Boy hit shelves earlier this month, and it’s an emotional, yet hope-filled story of friendship, overcoming grief, and taking chances.

Will Levine just started the seventh grade, and things aren’t going very well for him. He’s a super nice kid who loves turtles, but all anyone tends to see is his micrognathia, a condition that causes a deformity on his chin. Because of this, he spends most of his time alone in his room with his turtle friends he found at the nearby marsh.

Turtle Boy Book Cover

This middle-grade debut, which will surely appeal to fans of Wonder, explores self-image, friendship, and grief, while highlighting the importance of taking chances. It will make you laugh and cry, and you will be eager to share it with someone you love.

Seventh grade is not going well for Will Levine. Kids at school bully him because of his funny-looking chin. His science teacher finds out about the turtles he spent his summer collecting from the marsh behind school and orders him to release them back into the wild. And for his bar mitzvah community service project, he has to go to the hospital to visit RJ, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. Unfortunately, Will hates hospitals.

At first, the boys don’t get along, but then RJ shares his bucket list with Will. Among the things he wants to do: ride a roller coaster, go to a concert and a school dance, and swim in the ocean. To Will, happiness is hanging out in his room, alone, preferably with his turtles. But as RJ’s disease worsens, Will realizes he needs to tackle the bucket list on his new friend’s behalf before it’s too late. It seems like an impossible mission, way outside Will’s comfort zone. But as he completes each task with RJ’s guidance, Will learns that life is too short to live in a shell.

Turtle Boy
AUTHOR: M. Evan Wolkenstein
PUBLISHER: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
DATE: May 5, 2020

Turning thirteen means that Will is about to face one of the biggest and most public nights of his life – his bar mitzvah. With a fear of hospitals, Will isn’t thrilled about his bar mitzvah community service project. He’ll be spending time visiting a boy named RJ, a teen struggling with an incurable disease. The boys don’t get along very well at first, but as RJ’s condition worsens, Will realizes he needs to help him live out the items on his bucket list before it’s too late. Everything on the list is far outside Will’s usual comfort zone, like riding a roller coaster and going to a school dance. As he begins to take chances and help his new friend, Will starts to realize life is too short to live in a shell.

We’re so excited to share that author M. Evan Wolkenstein is taking our readers beyond the pages of Turtle Boy, sharing 8 fun facts about this heartfelt and humorous story! Find out more about Will, the real-life events that inspired the book, and more!

8 Fun Facts About Turtle Boy:

(Image Provided by M. Evan Wolkenstein)
FACT #1:

Turtle Boy isn’t an autobiography, but it is loosely based on my own life, growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. Like the main character, around the time of my bar mitzvah, I developed a facial difference that invited a lot of teasing. Also, like Will, I was socially awkward and afraid of swimming, crowded events, roller coasters, large crowds….trying anything new.

Will is not actually me…but you could say there’s a lot of Will in me. See, while I go by my middle name (Evan), my first name is Matt. And Will’s name hides inside the name (flip the W into an M…then swap the vowel… ll becomes tt. Will = Matt). At the same time, I think Will is in a lot of us: who doesn’t have a side of them that wishes they could hide from the world, safe within their shell?

(Image Provided by M. Evan Wolkenstein)
FACT #2:

I didn’t have to do any research about drumming and junk drum sets because, starting in High School, I actually taught myself to play junk-drums! I scrounged a vintage suitcase from the attic, gathered cans and pans and clipboards and whatever made a great sound, and borrowed a couple of drum sticks. I used to use my suitcase as a book bag, and between classes, sitting in the courtyard at school, I’d play drums – alone or with other musicians.

Once I went to college, I learned real drums, but I’ve always been proud of my junk-drums set. Try it! You can learn to play drums with a couple of drumsticks (or even wooden spoons) and some odds and ends.

FACT #3:

Like Will, I’m Jewish and had a bar mitzvah. But unlike Will, I loved being Jewish as a kid. I enjoyed the quiet majesty of synagogue services with my family (although I didn’t love Hebrew school) and my best friend Joe and I loved doing Jewish holidays together.

Eventually, I decided to go to Jerusalem and study Judaism more seriously at a place called Pardes, where men and women can learn Jewish text, culture, and history in a place that encourages arguing, debating, and questioning. I loved that so much I stayed for four years and got my Masters’ in education and became a high school teacher at a Jewish high school called JCHS of the Bay. It’s in San Francisco. Rabbi Harris is a conglomeration of some of my favorite teachers through the years.

(Image Provided by M. Evan Wolkenstein)
FACT #4:

My middle school actually had a nature preserve called the Back 40, which became one of the most important settings for Turtle Boy. The real Back 40 is much smaller, though, and when I returned as an adult…it was even smaller than I remembered. Life is like that. One day, you might pay a visit to your old home or your old school…it all seems smaller. Do places shrink? Or do we grow?

FACT #5:

One of the hardest things about learning anything new, or creating anything new (like writing a novel) is that it is not always fun. Like anything worth doing, it’s periods of hard work, times when you think maybe it’s a waste of time (and you might as well quit), moments of breakthrough, and then one day, everything explodes in dazzling, shimmering flecks of sunlight (SUCCESS!)…until the next big murky problem needs to be solved.

Writing, music, sports, business, design, science. You don’t do it because it’s fun…you do it because you have a passion for it, and your passion pushes you through the long hard months of work. And yes, often it can be fun. Really fun.

(Here’s my writing turtle with my daughter. Now, she’s almost two, and when I ask her what “Turtle Boy” is, she says, “Daddy’s Bookie-book!” – (Image Provided by M. Evan Wolkenstein)
FACT #6:

Many people have routines for getting their stuff done. Me, in order to write Turtle Boy (and also be a high school teacher and dad) I had to get up at 4:45AM every day, drink some Yerba Mate (a brazillian tea-like drink) and sit in a worn, blue armchair and write until I’d head off to school. Then, after everyone went to bed, I’d stay up for another hour and a half. I called my chair the “king chair” because it was like my writer’s throne…very necessary because, as Fact 4 says, as a writer, you don’t always feel good about your writing. Imagining myself as the king of my book helped me get it done.

I also had a little, stuffed Turtle looking down at me, and sometimes, even when I wanted to quit, I’d write two more sentences just to make him happy.

(Image Provided by M. Evan Wolkenstein)
FACT #7:

No one accomplishes anything good alone. In my case, my wife, Gabi, was my constant companion. She’s really smart and has incredible ideas. She writes books about food, she has a great blog about cooking on a budget, and she was even the inspiration for a tv comedy called Young and Hungry.

Whenever I needed a joke, needed to make a decision about the plot, or needed to take a deep-dive into a character’s mind to understand them better, Gabi was there. The lesson? No matter what you’re doing in life, find someone to “have your back.”

FACT #8:

Though I didn’t write Turtle Boy until my 40s, I’ve been a writer since middle school. I used to spend lunches in the library, dreaming up plots for sci-fi stories I never actually wrote down. In high school and college, I wrote short stories. Then, I took a ten year break! I drew comics and wrote about men’s fashion in a blog called Style For Dorks and became a personal stylist.

When the time was right, Turtle Boy wanted to come out, so I put those other things aside and got to work. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s best to focus deeply on one thing and get really good at it. But other times, it’s good to try new things, experiment, and not be afraid to fail. Each project is a stepping stone to the next and something big, something special might be right around the corner.

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