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.
M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and author of YA novel Turtle Boy (Random House, May 2020).
He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Hebrew University, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. His work can be found in The Forward, Tablet Magazine, The Washington Post, Engadget, My Jewish Learning, and BimBam.
He lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Oh. My. God! I am totally wrecked in the best possible way! This was an absolutely amazing, absolute must-read! Unique, funny, engaging and then devastating. It is really hard to read through tears. That was the challenge for the last part of this truly life-changing debut! Breaking my no-star rating to give this five. I loved this book!
Thank you so much to Usborne Publishing for providing me with a copy of Turtle Boy, in exchange for an honest review!
Will is being constantly teased at school, due to his chin looking different to other people’s. Even worse, the doctor has recommended he has surgery to fix it, but Will doesn’t do hospitals, after his father went in for routine surgery and never came out.
When his Rabbi requests Will spend time with a RJ, a boy in hospital with a serious illness, Will is determined to clock up the hours he needs to do for his bar mitzvah community service and get out as quickly as possible. It doesn’t even seem like RJ really wants him there anyway. But somewhere along the way, Will discovers RJ has a bucket list. One he can’t complete on his own. Everything on it seems like Will’s worst nightmares, but can he really say no to a boy who won’t live to experience them for himself?
This story was SO wonderful. Heart-wrenching and relatable to anyone who has wanted to stay in their comfort zone, where things can’t get worse than they already are. As Will faces his fears to attempt to fulfil RJ’s bucket list, he starts to admit that maybe coming out of your shell isn’t so bad after all.
Turtle Boy was one of those books that manages to toe the line between middle grade and YA. It would be perfect for older middle grade children, but still isn’t too juvenile for YA and adult readers. The whole story was adorable, while tackling hard hitting subjects, with fabulous and very human characters.
-sighs- I was pulled in by the concept of this book, but truthfully, it was a let down. It didn't...I don't know, it didn't sit right. And was extremely difficult to read; Turtle Boy made me uncomfortable. And I also didn't much feel like there was a difference in voices, be it the kids or the adults and regardless of gender. A lot of awkwardness and grimacing on my end. It sadly got to the point where I couldn't take any more, and though I pushed myself to get to exactly 50%, I had to stop. Because it was feeling more like a chore, and with my stress/anxiety/depression levels higher than normal, some reading sessions would accentuate that, triggering an almost dread, and that's never fair nor fun.
I very much hope that this book resonates with others, that maybe it simply wasn't my jam, because again, the concept of befriending a terminally ill patient and finishing their Bucket List is a heartwarming and altruistic thing that is my cup of tea. Wolkenstein just didn't execute it correctly. HOWEVER, I very much appreciated the exposure to Jewish culture; that bit was well crafted.
“In life,” he says, “we have moments of truth, where everything is on the line. And when these moments happen, we never have cheat sheets. We only have our instincts and the skills we’ve developed over the years.”
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the bright cover; this is one dark story. Seventh grade isn’t going too well for Will – bullied for his nonexistent chin and called Turtle Boy (which is kind of ironic because Will happens to love turtles) at school, Will also faces a surgery to combat his micrognathia.
The only thing? Will is terrified of hospitals ever since his father died during a routine surgery when Will was only four years old. In an attempt to help Will lose his fear of hospitals, his mother and his Rabbi decide to make him visit a teenager at the hospital, RJ, as part of his community service project that he needs to complete before his Bar Mitzvah. RJ has a mitochondrial disease, has been cooped up at the hospital for ages, and doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to volunteers spending time with him. Actually, he loves to drive them away within the first hour. But RJ is dying and Will may be his last chance to finish all the things on his bucket list before he is gone… Though the boys don’t get along at the beginning and snap at each other quite like turtles do when they feel a stranger invading their territory, their friendship blossoms as RJ helps Will come out of his shell.
There’s a certain magic to middle-grade novels, the way they approach topics that feel insurmountable – and Turtle Boy does this with a big one.
This book tackles grief and the many instances in which it presents itself – it isn’t always crying in secret or avoiding the topic of the loss. Sometimes it’s drumming your heart out, realising you won’t ever leave the hospital. Sometimes it’s letting go of the turtles that have been your only friends because they deserve their freedom. And sometimes, it’s getting that surgery despite your fear of what might happen when you’re in that operating room. This book screams at you to face your fears because the things you will regret most are those you didn’t do. I loved how Wolkenstein managed to present grief in an accessible and almost hopeful manner, reminding readers that though there are hardships in life, there are always going to be people you can count on. Will and his mother experience grief very differently and that makes it hard for the both of them to communicate sometimes. They fight about the little stuff to avoid talking about the bigger issues – a trait Will has definitely inherited since he tends to do the same with his friends Shirah and Max.
Paired with grief, this story also shows what it means to be brave. Will deals with a lot of bullying and self-doubts and can’t seem to get out of his shell even when his friends and Rabbi ask him to. It takes RJ and his no-nonsense attitude for Will to realise how much he has to live for – and that he has to do his best and give life his all.
Beyond the main plot, there are a few special things that make this story fit seamlessly together: one is the devotion and passion Will has for turtles and their safety, especially when their home is being invaded by bulldozers. Will has trouble standing up for himself but he has no qualms making his voice heard when it comes to protecting what he cares about. The other highlight of the story is how much there is to learn about Jewish practices. The inclusion of this cultural heritage and how Will feels about these traditions was such a lovely addition to his journey and let me learn a thing or two myself.
Though there is heartbreak between these pages, there is also hope. At the end of it all, Turtle Boy is about friendship, the ones we don’t see, the ones we should treasure and the ones that will change us irreversibly. A wholesome blend of humour and grief, Will’s story will appeal to younger and older readers alike. A beautiful debut that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Several colleagues were raving about this middle-grade debut and the author, a Milwaukee native and high school teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, was nice enough to send me an ARC earlier in the summer. Missing our audio-book car time, my 11-year-old wanted to listen to the book instead, snuggling together in bed following along with the print version. Will Levine is a seventh grader struggling through a new school year, the B’nai Mitzvah circuit at his small Wisconsin synagogue, and his Rabbi’s insistence that he complete his Bar Mitzvah community service project by visiting a terminally ill boy in the hospital. About an hour in, my son Evan commented: "WOW, this book is SO Jewish!" And, it is SO good! As Evan noted, it has all of the ingredients that make for a great book: it's funny with lots of laugh out loud moments (Nut Loaf!) but it's also a tear-jerker (we both cried 3 different times!); the protagonist is flawed but also brave and very likable; it's a realistic school story with a large cast of fully developed, relatable characters; it portrays heart-warming (and difficult) friendships and relationships that change and evolve during the book; the Jewish content is deep and rich, authentic and accurate, sophisticated and accessible; and of course, there are turtles. Highly recommend for 4th-8th graders and the grown-ups who love them. The author Evan Wolkenstein is not only a wonderful writer but he is a fantastic audio-book narrator too! When this book wins one of the major Jewish (or even mainstream) literary awards, you can all say that my Evan and I predicted it back in August!
Oh my. I didn’t know what I was stepping into when I started this book. It’s another one of those “the cover isn’t nearly as serious as the book” scenarios that caught me 100% off guard. So just a fair warning that this one is heavy and meaningful and will definitely require some Kleenex. Will Levine loves turtles. He collects them from the pond behind his school and takes care of them at home. The kids at school call him Turtle Boy, but it’s not because he likes turtles. Nope, that would have been fine. He is bullied relentlessly at school and called Turtle Boy because of his odd-looking chin. But hold on to your hats, folks, because Will’s life is about to change in a way he never imagined. His bar mitzvah community service project lands him in a hospital, helping a patient who doesn’t even seem to like him. While there were plenty of somber moments that brought tears to my eyes, I seriously laughed out loud SO hard on several occasions. Such beautiful, meaningful writing. Be sure to pick up a copy and see why this story landed a starred review from Booklist.
For more children's literature, middle grade literature, and YA literature reviews, feel free to visit my personal blog at The Miller Memo!!
I loved this book which portrays growing up Jewish and the stress related to becoming a Bar Mitzvah, having a sick friend who is your age and growing up without a Dad. The author weaves together characters from 7th grade which ring true and the story is so engaging you can't wait to find out what will happen.
I think this book would be a great resource in Day Schools, Synagogue schools and summer camps. It is also great for students who want to know what it is like to go through the B'nai Mitzvah students experience before, during and after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
The author has fantastic resources which have depth and will be organized for many different types of students. I know your students/campers/kids will love this book
My kids and I slowly read this book one or two chapters at a time before bed for months. The main character, Will, is in 7th grade, and my 4th grade son and 6th grade daughter both give Turtle Boy five stars.
To be honest, at first I was worried that Turtle Boy was going to be a Wonder knock-off, since the main character is teased at school for having a different-looking chin. Thankfully, Turtle Boy includes a variety of memorable conflicts and characters. Will experiences grief, fear, friendship, and growth. The readers learn about Will’s passion for turtles and RJ’s passion for drums. Our family fell in love with RJ’s storyline and became more and more invested in RJ and Will’s friendship. We gained exposure to Jewish traditions, as Will prepares for his Bar Mitzvah and has many conversations with his rabbi. My daughter was learning about world religions in social studies class while we were reading, so it was neat to hear her making connections between the book and what she was learning about Judaism.
My 6th grade daughter said that she thinks Turtle Boy is a detailed and amazing story. RJ’s storyline made her really sad. She found the ending inspiring.
My 4th grade son said that he thinks the author is really creative.
Our family recommends Turtle Boy to the middle graders in your life. Loss and grief are central to this novel, so please consider if it will be too emotional for certain readers.
Miss Lori was destroyed while reading this book!!! The main character is a 7th grade boy with a bit of a physical issue with his chin and an introverted personality. While he loves turtles, he doesn't enjoy being called "turtle boy" because the name-calling isn't for his love of turtles, but for his chin.
His service hour requirement for his Bar Mitzvah is to visit a young man in the hospital and this makes him panic due to his introvert personality and the fact that he has panic attacks even thinking about hospitals. The drama of middle school, the friend relationships that are sometimes hard to maintain there, single parent/tween relationships, grief, growing up, standing up for something for which you strongly believe are all intertwined in this fabulous middle and junior high read. I also highly recommend it for parents of tweens....but be prepared to read it with a Kleenex box next to you!
I had M. Evan Wolkenstein send me a note about his debut novel. In general, I ignore these requests, but I thought I'd check this one out. This book comes with some pretty high praise (compared to Wonder), and it delivers. This book deals with a middle schooler who is struggling with some physical problems that will require surgery in addition to some grief in his past. He ends up meeting a kid in the hospital who changes his perspective on a lot of things.
I don't want to spoil anything. If you enjoyed Wonder, you'll clearly enjoy this. If you read the first few chapters, I believe the book is good enough to convince you to read it all. I'll definitely add this author on my list of must read authors.
I loved this book. It is a great story of how we teach compassion, accept differences and grow as young people. A perfect middle grades read, works for boys and girls and expresses the real life pain that growing up can bring. There is a theme of preparing for Bar Mitzvah which also expresses the process that will be relatable to Jewish kids and explains the process to non Jewish readers.
A middle school librarian kept telling me I HAD to read this. So I did.
It’s like SMILE by Raina Telgemeir and WONDER by RJ Palacio and MAYDAY by Karen Harrington were mixed up in a blender and their best parts fused into this incredible, funny, moving, inspiring, relatable book.
3.75 stars. Beautiful story about coming out of your shell and trying new things. Will discovers himself as he completes the items on R.J. a terminally ill teen's, bucket list. It's part of his Bar Mitzvah service hours. You'll find yourself cheering for both Will (aka Turtle Boy) and R.J. in this story that shares traditions from the Jewish faith. A Sydney Taylor Book Award winner that is based on the author's own experiences as a teen with body dysmorphia. In this story, Will has micrognathia (with aplasia of the mandibular condyles).
During the school year, I feel like all I get to read are books my students are reading. I don't mind reading those books, because there is a TON of amazing literature aimed at elementary and middle school students, some of which are new to me (exciting!). However, I have a giant stack of books that are aimed at people outside of school-age, and they get neglected.
A few weeks ago, I happened to be in fourth grade's classroom, when library class began. Our wonderful librarian was helping students figure out how to check books out on our online system. It got me intrigued; turns out we teachers have accounts, too! Browsing through, this stuck out to me. Having a best friend obsessed with turtles helped; the description of it online sold it. I checked it out, a happy medium: Still aimed at people younger than me, but a choice, separate from reading a book just because my students might need support with a text.
That was more background than you needed, right? Sorry.
This book was an excellent choice on my part. It felt good to go on this ride. I didn't really like any of the characters at first, but they certainly underwent changes as it went on. The different elements of the story came together very nicely, and not always expectedly/predictably. I appreciated that. I appreciated that *YES*, I'm an easy crier, but I went through over a dozen tissues and a few pauses while I ugly cried as I powered through parts 3 and 4 this morning. The mark of a good story is that it makes you feel things (at least, in my world).
I also love that this book brought in other cultures; made them central to the plot in some ways, too. I remember preparing for my bat mitzvah, so those words and traditions are familiar to me. I am happy that other people reading it will have some exposure, too.
I am thankful for this book. I'll be back to it again one day.
To be honest, I liked this one the more I read it. At first, I thought I would just push through and finish it just to say it was done. Then, I kept reading and I found myself getting more and more invested in Will and his year as a 7th grader.
Will never thought he was different, until other kids started calling him Turtle Boy. This isn't due to his fascination with turtles (although, he does love them). Rather it is because his chin is much smaller than other peoples. So small in fact, he might have to have surgery to fix it. Which terrifies him, because he knows that people die in hospitals. His dad did, after a routine hernia procedure went wrong and he never woke up.
On top of the stress of his health, he is also getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. Part of the requirements for this, besides learning parts of the Torah and preparing to stand in front of the entire synagogue, is that he has to do community service. So far Will has said no to all of the options presented to him. Now Rabbi Harris says his only choice is to go to the hospital to visit RJ, a high school boy who is very ill. As Will gets to know RJ, his world begins to expand and he realizes that growing up means you have to quit thinking about only yourself.
Overall, this is a good purchase for large collections where students are interested in realistic fiction about people who are different and the struggles to fit in.
It's been over a month since I read this book. I've read or listened to at least a half-dozen other books since, and let me tell you that TURTLE BOY will stick with you. The MC, Will, is called Turtle Boy by bullies at school—he has a condition called micrognathia with aplasia of the mandibular condyles. It's a condition where the chin continues to shrink during puberty and Will needs surgery to repair it. This is only one focus of the novel.
TURTLE BOY is rich with many powerful topics: the environment and saving a marsh that developers want to destroy, grief, friendship, body image. Will's relationship with his rabbi is really special, and it shapes his perception of self and perception of others. It's through this relationship that Will gets to know RJ, a dying boy with mitochondrial disease, affecting 1 in 5,000. There novel is filled with love and compassion. It's filled with a powerful message of self-acceptance and what it means to be a true friend.
Highly recommend, especially for those interested in bringing more diverse books into classrooms!
I just finished the audiobook version of this and absolutely LOVED it! Will's voice is so well done, and to me, this really read as authentically middle grade. I'll admit that my favorite characters were probably RJ and Rabbi Harris, but it's likely because I have a real soft spot for sensitive rocker dudes and aging hippies, lol. Nevertheless, I found all the characters really well done, even the adults, which can often be two-dimensional in MG books. I'll also admit to having shed a tear or two, but to me, that's also a sign of a good story. I highly recommend TURTLE BOY to readers of all ages!
Amazing book from a first-time author. Really compelling story of bravery and compassion, perfect for teens and adults. The protagonist was believable and engaging -- I really liked him, even when he disappointed me. I followed along with his adventures, and even cried at one point. Evan Wolkenstein really got me into the mind of a socially-outcast middle schooler. I am better for having known Will.
Ik was vrij sceptisch over dit boek, aangezien ik een rip-off van Wonder verwachtte. Dat was niet zo. Het grootste verschil was de likability van het hoofdpersonages. Waar Auggie het gehele boek een ontzettend schatje is, zit Will vooral in de knoop met zichzelf. Hier gaat hij onbewust mee aan de slag als hij verplicht wordt om met de terminale RJ om te gaan. De eerste paar ontmoetingen tussen RJ en Will zijn moeizaam, waarbij RJ benadrukt dat Will zich niet zo aan moet stellen, wat Will serieus opvat. RJ is er immers vele malen slechter aan toe dan hij. Dit leek mij geen constructieve fundering voor een vriendschap en ook niet voor Will om meer zichzelf te worden. Echter kwam ik er aan het einde van het boek achter dat het verhaal grotendeels autobiografisch is, waardoor ik deze feedback terugneem. De auteur zal er dan immers veel meer vanaf weten dan ik. Al met al toch echt een verrassend boek, wat ik met veel plezier heb gelezen!
I would like to extend my gratitude to Netgalley and Random House Children's book for the ARC of Turtle Boy in exchange for an honest review. I was not expecting to have this title knock my socks off- but it certainly did. It reminds me a little bit of Wonder- but is BETTER! It is not because both protagonists are dealing with a facial deformity. The dynamic character change of the protagonist, Will, is phenomenal. Readers are introduced to a grief-stricken boy and his mother. They are both still grieving over the death of his father 8 years ago. Even though Will was young, his death has prevented both of them from moving forward. Will has inherited a facial deformity that is becoming more pronounced as he enters puberty. Surgery is the only option since it is interfering with his speech, eating, and breathing. This is traumatic for Will since his dad died during an operation. He has a real fear of doctors and hospitals. He is teased as Turtle Boy and experiences bullying due to his lack of a chin. Metaphorically, he becomes a turtle retreating into his shell and missing out on great friends and opportunities. (terrific book jacket) His Rabbi connects him with a terminally ill teenager to visit at a hospital. This is service for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. What starts out as a "have to" situation transforms Will in such a special way. The reader will never forget this friendship. In the middle of all this, the reader is introduced to drumming, music and of course real turtles. For a debut writer, I am so impressed with how the secondary characters were written. Each one is very special in their own way. The reader will never be asking- now who is this character? That is a trick with a long list of secondary characters. The description and richness of the writing brings great visualization- I felt like I was a part of many of the scenes- especially the last one- WOW! I would highly recommend this to teachers of 5-7 graders to use in the classroom since the story contains many of our standards. There is so much more to this rich story that the reader needs to dive in and experience it themselves. There are many parts of the story- but it all weaves together beautifully- it was not written to just check off PC boxes. All the characters are authentic as well as the plot line. Even though it is a longer story, it is a fast read. The layered themes along with the strong voice given to the protagonist make this a book worth your time to read. I will even say that it is Newbery quality. I hope it is not overlooked since this is a debut novel. It in the very least should get a debut award. I beg the author to consider writing a second story from RJ's point of view- what an amazing character you developed- I would love to read his backstory!!
Turtle Boy is Will. Will is an overly sensitive boy who is now in 7th grade. When in 5th grade, a couple of bullies teased Will about his lack of a chin and he retreated from the world. In seventh grade his mother takes him back to the doctor and they decide surgery is the answer which will happen during winter break. In the meantime, Will has to put in 40 hours of volunteer time for his Bar Mitzvah. He starts one place for volunteering but is too afraid to do it. He tries to lie about that but gets caught. This time, the Rabbi tells him he’s coming to the hospital to visit a terminal boy a few years older than him. No is not an option. The two boys get off to a rough start but gradually become friends. This becomes a life altering friendship. RJ finally trusts him enough to ask Will to help him with his bucket list. Will begins to understand that maybe the whole world isn’t about him and his fears and lies. This being a YA book (my library has it as J), there are too many themes going on in this debut book but of course RJ’s death is a big one.
I have to say, at least the romance is low key which is a nice change. But a thoroughly unpleasant boy becomes fairly decent, all without the counseling both he and his mom clearly needs. The Rabbi is doing some counseling but the amount of change is unrealistic. Even the really obnoxious bullies become nicer. The book would be useful for kids with body dysmorphia. Or facing surgery and nervous about it. Possibly those who love turtles. Really a low quality 3 star title but I’m too irritated by the rapid change from disagreeable to nice and to how quickly he managed to banish his deep fears to give it three stars. I’d give it 1 star but the utility of it having body dysmorphia is keeping me from that.
Excellent middle-grade book about facing fears and overcoming challenges. The plot was thoroughly engaging, addressing issues of protecting nature and endangered species, coping with medical issues, visiting the sick, facing death, and family relationships. Set during the year of preparing for Bar Mitzvah, the book focuses on the aspects of growing up, and doing mitzvot (commandments/good deeds) more than the ritual of the Bar Mitzvah itself. Amazing that this is the author's first book--it's excellent. Highly recommend.
This heartbreakingly beautiful #ownvoices MG debut highlights friendship, taking chances, self-identity and grief with characters that will remain in your heart for a long, long time. My only concern was length...at 388 pages, most of my 4/5th middle grade readers wouldn’t find this one approachable as an independent read.
Will Levine is called Turtle Boy by his classmates because he doesn’t have much of a chin—and because they’re jerks. He also collects turtles, but no one knows this. (Yes, he collects them in the wild, and he knows that’s not legal, or right...) Meanwhile, he’s being Bar Mitzvah-ed and has a 40 -hour community volunteer commitment, but he’s so shy that few opportunities will work for him. His rabbi connects him with RJ, a seriously ill, hospitalized 16- year- old, who has few people in his life. At first, they have nothing in common. What a great, hopeful, grief-filled, suffused with loss, and drumming, and roller coasters, oh and life mg, YA or adult book this is! Borrowed from interlibrary loan.
i read this in less than 24 hours. it was raw, funny, and made me cry to the point where i had to put the book down so i could clear up my vision. this is one of the best recent contemporaries i’ve read. every character was vivid and real, and i fell in love with rj, even though i knew what was going to happen. the plot was fantastic & well constructed. the characters had distinct voices and unique struggles. my ~only~ critique would be the bar mitzvah scene at the end, where will is reviewing his year. that part of his speech continued for about three pages, and it was just telling all the themes and messages the readers could’ve picked up on by themselves with a little thought. (: but that’s it. everything else was amazing, it was so clean, and i would 100% recommend.
This book deserves 6 stars. I highly recommend the audio version. Narration was great and it helped to hear the correct Jewish pronunciation of words. Keep your tissues handy, but know that your soul will be rejuvenated at the conclusion of this heart print novel.
GREAT GREAT GREAT book! If you love "Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie" and "Wink" - this is the book for you. Cried for the entire last quarter, but it was such a well told, beautiful story about acceptance, friendship, overcoming obstacles...and so much more. Would love to meet this author!