Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

Hello, M. Evan Wolkenstein! Welcome to Watch. Connect. Read! I’m sending you a HUGE congratulations on receiving the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade. What does receiving this award for Turtle Boy mean to you?

M. Evan Wolkenstein: Thanks so much, Mr. Schu! Winning the award is an incredible honor but it’s one that reflects the burden of responsibility that we adults -- writers and artists and teachers and parents -- must bear. It’s clear that so many young people are feeling isolated and alone and maybe losing hope right now. Giving young readers the sense that they are seen and heard and valued and that the future holds better things -- that has been precisely my goal as a high school teacher since I entered the field nearly 20 years ago... and more recently, as an author. Of course, when I started writing Turtle Boy, I couldn’t have known that soon, we’d all be trying to survive an era defined by disconnection and danger. But I hope that the book’s message - that people love you and are nearby to support you (even and especially when you can’t see that) - will reach some very hungry hearts.

Hungry Heart. Isn’t that a Bruce Springsteen song? Oh, yes...check out that third verse!

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don't make no difference what nobody says
Ain't nobody like to be alone

The Boss says it so well - nobody likes that feeling of being alone, far from home (or these days, maybe stuck at home).

The Sydney Taylor award is “for books that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” There is no single Jewish experience, of course, but a central story of the Jewish People is exactly this age-old search: the yearning for home (and also for freedom) -- developing the resilience and compassion that comes from wandering (and also from being stuck) -- and then striving to repair the world a into a place where everyone, as the Hebrew Bible imagines, can feel “safe under their own vine and fig tree and never be afraid” (though these days, many of us would love a few more friends to hang out with under our lonely vine and fig trees).

Winning this award means helping more young people to dip into this hope: whether they’re yearning for home -- a sense of belonging -- or for adventure, yearning for the freedom to seek out their own destiny. Whether they long to feel closer to the people they love, or to sit in peace and unafraid under their own fig trees or to have more friends to join them in their private worlds - Turtle Boy is about all those things -- and I’m thrilled to imagine this book finding its way into more readers’ hands.

If you were celebrating books with 6th and 7th graders in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, what would you tell them about Turtle Boy?

M. Evan Wolkenstein: I grew up in Mequon, Wisconsin, which, in the 1980s, was a mix of sleepy suburbs and farmland and its main source of entertainment for kids was one mediocre soft serve yogurt place. I wanted to be a writer and I believed that all the good stories must take place in Narnia or New York City or a Galaxy Far Far Away (such as New York City). Now, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when I began writing Turtle Boy, I tried to set the book here: I thought the Golden Gate Bridge would make a great backdrop for a book. But it did not work. Turtle Boy, my own story, needed to be set amongst the marshes and meadows of Wisconsin.

This teaches something really important: anyone who is living through the challenging years of 6th and 7th grade has enough stories to write a thousand books: battles with good and evil, noble quests, journeys to the Heart of Darkness. Your stories come from you and through you - you, exactly as you are, and precisely where you are. Even Mequon, Wisconsin.

Please tell us about the stuffed turtle that looked down at you while you were writing Turtle Boy.

M. Evan Wolkenstein: Nothing escapes your eye, Mr. Schu! Yes, sitting on the chair where I wrote my book is a little terrycloth stuffed turtle. It’s a relic from my past, like the chair itself. There are several key scenes in Turtle Boy that center around old objects, saved in boxes. Well, as I just said, our stories come from within us. And I am someone who saves old objects in boxes, thinking they must contain some part of myself. Some of those old objects make plenty of sense to save: my Grandfather’s old spectacles, for example. When he passed away, I was 15. I took them and kept them safe for all these years.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what compelled me to save a tub-toy I’ve owned since the Reagan administration, but around the time I started writing Turtle Boy, it made more sense to perch it on my armchair, over my shoulder, than to let it languish in a cardboard box reliquary.

The thing is, objects are vessels; we can imbue them with endless meaning, and it wasn’t long before Scrubby Turtle became the patron saint of Turtle Boy. It never let out a disapproving “hmmph” when my prose was overly gratuitous, it was patient with my process, and now that the book is finished, it lives in my little daughter’s toy bin.

One day, maybe she’ll adopt it as a muse when she writes her first book.

Please finish the following sentence starters:

I hope Turtle Boy makes you feel the tug of compassion, laugh, cover your eyes, feel a surge of hope, cry, and then fill you with the slow bloom of discovery and redemption. Or...maybe just keep you (or a young reader in your life) company on a rainy weekend.

Story is the way we make Truth portable. It’s difficult to transmit the deepest part of ourselves in words alone, the part we normally share by spending a day together. But in story-form, those parts of our hearts can grow little feet and can scurry long distances -- or they can crawl slow and steady into the world.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about drums! The front cover of Turtle Boy shows Will Levine, his sweatshirt pulled tightly over his mouth, but carrying a pair of drum sticks. Will is frequently mute from anxiety, but drums are LOUD. Drums and rhythm play a major role in this story, from the Boom! Pack! Boom-Boom Pack! exercise Will learns from his mentor RJ to the rhythm of the Mourners’ Kaddish: Bapa Dum! B’Ddada Bum! Boom Boom Boom!

Like Will, I was taught drums by a fellow who was slightly older than me. He, like RJ, had a fatal illness. I still have the drum pedal he gave me, and when I play “batta-botta-batta-botta-batta-botta” with my palms on a tabletop, I picture him looking down and saying, “Good! But you’re still rushing! Don’t forget to breathe!”

Congratulations, M. Evan Wolkenstein! 

M. Evan Wolkenstein is a high school teacher and writer. 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 daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Turtle Boy is his first novel and winner of the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award.

Below is the schedule for the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. 


Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal, author and illustrator of Welcoming Elijah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Picture Book Category

Sofiya Pasternack, author of Anya and the Nightingale
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category


M. Evan Wolkenstein, author of Turtle Boy
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Middle Grade Category

Jane Yolen and Khoa Lee, author and illustrator of Miriam at the River
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category


Anne Blankman, author of The Blackbird Girls
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category

Monica Hesse, author of They Went Left
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category


Tyler Feder, author of Dancing at the Pity Party
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult Category

Mychal Copeland and Andre Ceolin, author and illustrator of I Am the Tree of Life
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category


Tziporah Cohen, author of No Vacancy
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category

Podcast interview at The Children's Book Podcast

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah


Popular Posts