Turtle Boy was a random bookstore find for me, and I’m really glad I picked it up off the shelf. An interesting cover illustration will always get me, and the combination of bright yellow and a picture of the visual representation of my inner child intrigued me. Turtle Boy follows Will Levine, who is struggling with bullying, the death of his father, and having to do community service as part of the preparation for his bar mitzvah. In the opening chapters of the book, Will is being bullied for his weak chin and while his mother thinks he looks fine, he insists on going to the doctor to see if there’s actually something wrong. He is terrified of hospitals and surgery since his father died in a surgical accident, but turns out that he does need jaw surgery. The book juggles his upcoming jaw surgery, blossoming friendship with the terminally ill teen he has to visit for community service, saving the wildlife area behind his school from development, his tumultuous relationship with his other friends, and the development of his self-esteem. All of this makes the book sound overly complicated, but it never feels that way and the balance seems natural.
I liked that Will was not a perfect protagonist and is often unpleasant to the people around him because of how miserable and angry he is. I also enjoyed the deft portrayal of complicated adults, as his mother’s own struggle with her husband’s death and her resistance to talking about him at all because of the depth of her grief was really well written. I thought the the description of how RJ struggles with his own terminal illness was well done, in that he wasn’t written as a saint or totally at peace with what was happening. And I liked the inclusion of Judaism in a deep and integral way throughout — it didn’t feel tacked on or included as an afterthought.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I hope Wolkenstein continues to write middle-grade novels (or any novels!). His ability to write compelling and nuanced characters, and to balance a complicated plot, makes him someone I will keep an eye out for if he writes another book.
The jacket says this is aimed at 10 and up — 12 is probably the sweet spot.