Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

Turtle Boy

Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER

A boy who has spent his life living inside a shell discovers the importance of taking chance in this "winner" (Booklist, starred review) of a friendship story that's perfect for fans of Wonder.


It's the year of Will Levine's bar mitzvah, and for his community service project, he's expected to go to the hospital to visit RJ, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. Will can't think of anything worse, mainly because he will have to face his fear of hospitals. Life in the seventh grade isn't much easier. The kids are relentless--they bully Will because of his funny looking chin.

When Will and RJ first meet, they DO NOT get along. Then RJ shares his bucket list with Will. Among the things he wants to do: ride a roller coaster; go to a school dance; swim in the ocean. To Will, happiness is hanging out in his room, alone, preferably with the turtles he collects. But as RJ's disease worsens, Will realizes he needs to tackle the bucket list on RJ'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.

"Everyone deserves a friend like Will Levine." --Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale
© Fred Greene
M. EVAN WOLKENSTEIN is a high school teacher and writer. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, and Hebrew University. His work can be found in Tablet magazine and the Washington Post, and on BimBam.com. He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Turtle Boy is his debut novel. View titles by M. Evan Wolkenstein
Chapter 1

All that happened two years ago.

Now it’s the first day of seventh grade. Mom is driving me to school because I missed the bus.

“Is it possible you tried to miss the bus?” she asks, her eyes on the road. “Sometimes you’re late for things—­you know, accidentally on purpose.”

Truthfully, it isn’t the bus’s fault. It’s my feet’s fault. Halfway to the bus stop, they froze. They would not move. I stood there, riveted, until the bus cruised past my stop, barely slowing down before gliding on its way.

I get these mini–­panic attacks sometimes. Like at the start of summer, when I went to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Mom dropped me off outside an old church, and the receptionist pointed the way to the cafeteria. Halfway down the hall, I could hear the laughter of the other volunteers and kitchen staff. All I could think was What will they think when they see my chin?

My brain said Go, but my feet said Nope, no way.

I was at the soup kitchen because of Rabbi Harris. He was making all the kids who were starting the seventh-­grade Hebrew school class do forty hours of community service—­something to do with us having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and becoming adults in the Jewish tradition, that we needed to take on responsibilities and give back to the community. The thing is, I didn’t want to do anything on the list. All the options involved meeting new people or going somewhere I’ve never been before, and I really, really like my routines.

We have a sheet of paper that an adult is supposed to sign each time we volunteer, and I totally could have forged the supervisor’s name—­Mom wouldn’t have suspected anything—­but I’m not like that. I’m not a liar.

Over dinner that night, I confessed that I’d hidden in the church parking lot for two hours instead of going into the cafeteria. Mom dropped her fork on her plate with a loud clank and went and got Rabbi Harris’s list.

“We’re going to find you a new place to volunteer,” she said. She went down the list of Rabbi Harris’s suggested volunteer opportunities: tutoring, senior home, community center, backyard or basement cleanup.

“No,” I responded after each one. “No, no, no.”

“Will!” she finally said, nearly shouting. She took a deep, exasperated breath. “You can’t go through life turn­ing down every opportunity that comes along. You need to get out there and do something.”

“Why should I?” I asked back. “You never do anything.”

“We are not talking about me,” she said harshly. “We’re talking about your Bar Mitzvah responsibilities, which require you to do more than sit in your room all day taking care of your turtle collection.”

I resented the phrase “turtle collection,” but that’s pretty much what I did for the rest of the summer: I hung out in my room and read books and took care of my specimens. I have four kinds: a box turtle, a painted turtle, a musk turtle, and a small snapping turtle. I don’t know anyone else who loves turtles the way I do. I’d much rather be in my room, taking care of my turtles and their habitats, than doing anything else—with one notable exception: walking the trails of the Back 40.

The Back 40 is the nature preserve behind school. Some trails I’ve walked a hundred times. Some I’ve barely seen. In the Back 40, with the sun and the breeze, I can move freely, taking big steps and scanning the sky for soaring hawks, or I can inch along, searching the ground for herps. “Herps” is a nickname for reptiles and amphibians. It comes from the Latin “to creep.” I love looking for herps: toads and frogs and tiny garter snakes and especially turtles. In the Back 40, I’m alone but I’m never lonely.

When my science teacher, Ms. Kuper, first brought us out there in sixth grade, she explained that it was called the Back 40 because in the 1800s, farmers in Wisconsin used to be granted plots of land: forty acres in front of their homes, and forty in back. Our Back 40 isn’t forty acres, she explained, it’s more like four—­and it was never part of a farm. It’s too marshy and full of cattails and trees. But that’s the nickname the Prairie Marsh School gave it when the county lent the land to the school a long time ago, Ms. Kuper said, when some of our grandparents were probably sitting in that very classroom.

My parents weren’t from Horicon: Dad grew up in California, and Mom grew up in Milwaukee. They met and got married in Berkeley. That’s where I was born. We only came to Wisconsin because my aunt Mo lives an hour from here, and after Dad died, Mom wanted to be closer to her sister.

At first, I hated Marsh Madness. That’s what Ms. Kuper called the class excursions into the Back 40. We were supposed to be looking at the flora and fauna. I only noticed the mosquitoes and mud. But then I realized that no one ever went out there after school. That meant it could all be mine.

I spent more and more time there, spotting red-­winged blackbirds flying overhead, listening to the whoop of the whip-­poor-­will camouflaged in the trees. One by one, as spring turned into summer, I caught my turtle specimens. I didn’t tell anyone about it—­not even Ms. Kuper. You could say that I secretly brought the Back 40 home with me and kept it in four large rectangles of glass in my room.

YYY

Mom and I drive in silence. There may be no way to escape going to school, but I’ve invented a way to keep people from seeing my face. I’ve started wearing an extra-­extra-­large hooded sweatshirt, even when the school is hot and stuffy, so I can draw the strings and close it around my face. Also, I fill my backpack with big books, partially so I have something to read when I eat lunch alone, but mostly so I can set up a wall in front of me.

On the bus, the front seat is mine. Nobody can turn and see my face except the driver. Last year, my best friend, Shirah, would get annoyed because her volley­ball friends sat way in the back and she wanted to sit with them, but we had a deal: I copied her math homework and she copied my science homework. To do that, she had to sit in the front with me. We didn’t see it as cheating—we helped each other.

I hope we’ll continue that routine this year. I hope we’re over our rough patch. Back in third and fourth grades, Shirah used to come over every Saturday after synagogue, and we’d play hide-­and-­seek or we’d invent new snack recipes, like Nutella, Cheerios, and marshmallows, micro­waved into a steaming blob.

In sixth grade we weren’t how we used to be. Shirah made the volleyball team and got a million new friends. Now we only hang out at Hebrew School and on the bus.

“You’re awful quiet,” Mom says. “Nervous?”

“No,” I say.

“Not even a little?” she asks, a hint of a smile in her voice.

I shake my head.

“Okay, so what are you feeling?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say.

“Nothing at all?” she presses. When I don’t answer, she adds, “Will, I wish you’d talk to me. I want to be helpful.”

“If you want to be helpful, let me be homeschooled. You don’t even have to do anything, I’ll read my own books.”

Mom laughs, even though I’m not really joking.

We pull up to the curb outside school. “Have a great day, Will,” she says. “I think seventh grade is going to be much better than sixth.”

“I don’t,” I say, getting out of the car. “I think it’s going to be a living nightmare.” I slam the door.

“Beep!” she calls, leaning closer to the open window. “Will? Beep!”

This “beep” thing started a long time ago, just after Mom and I moved to Horicon from California. I hadn’t met Shirah yet, and Mom didn’t have any friends, so we would go to the budget theater on weekends—­they showed reruns and oldies for five dollars. In one movie, a bunch of secret agents were synchronizing their watches before a mission. Mom and I started doing the same thing whenever we were going separate ways. She’d say “beep” and touch her watch and I’d answer “beep.” I loved it.

But that was when I was little. I think it’s totally stupid now. I don’t want to tell her that, though. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

I muster a grumpy “beep” and turn toward the school. Once Mom drives away, I draw the strings on my hood and push through the school’s glass doors. The lobby and halls are empty.

This is bad. This is very, very bad. The receptionist sees me through her sliding window, standing there, frozen.

“Hello, young man,” she says, and points to the double doors. “Go in quietly; the assembly has started.”
  • SELECTION | 2021
    Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year

"Turtle Boy is a marvelous coming-of-age story . . . about bravery and the redemptive power of friendship. A perfect summer read." —Kveller

"Turtle Boy—both boy and book—is a winner." —Booklist, starred review

“A story about what it means to be brave when all you want to do is hide in your shell." —Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale

"A wholesome blend of humor and grief, Will’s story will appeal to younger and older readers alike. A beautiful debut that wears its heart on its sleeve." —The Nerd Daily

"A strong debut novel about grief, loss, and coming out of one's shell." —School Library Journal

"A satisfying arc, from sadness to dawning hope and strength." —Kirkus Reviews

"A masterful mingling of deeply resonant themes, including self-esteem, loneliness, loss, and the rewards of improbable friendships." —Publishers Weekly

“Wolken­stein por­trays mid­dle school bul­ly­ing with unflinch­ing accu­ra­cy. The ambi­tious nov­el bal­ances sev­er­al dif­fer­ent themes with real­is­tic char­ac­ters . . . . richly drawn and compelling. Tur­tle Boy is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed._ —Jewish Book Council

 


About

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER

A boy who has spent his life living inside a shell discovers the importance of taking chance in this "winner" (Booklist, starred review) of a friendship story that's perfect for fans of Wonder.


It's the year of Will Levine's bar mitzvah, and for his community service project, he's expected to go to the hospital to visit RJ, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. Will can't think of anything worse, mainly because he will have to face his fear of hospitals. Life in the seventh grade isn't much easier. The kids are relentless--they bully Will because of his funny looking chin.

When Will and RJ first meet, they DO NOT get along. Then RJ shares his bucket list with Will. Among the things he wants to do: ride a roller coaster; go to a school dance; swim in the ocean. To Will, happiness is hanging out in his room, alone, preferably with the turtles he collects. But as RJ's disease worsens, Will realizes he needs to tackle the bucket list on RJ'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.

"Everyone deserves a friend like Will Levine." --Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale

Author

© Fred Greene
M. EVAN WOLKENSTEIN is a high school teacher and writer. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, and Hebrew University. His work can be found in Tablet magazine and the Washington Post, and on BimBam.com. He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Turtle Boy is his debut novel. View titles by M. Evan Wolkenstein

Excerpt

Chapter 1

All that happened two years ago.

Now it’s the first day of seventh grade. Mom is driving me to school because I missed the bus.

“Is it possible you tried to miss the bus?” she asks, her eyes on the road. “Sometimes you’re late for things—­you know, accidentally on purpose.”

Truthfully, it isn’t the bus’s fault. It’s my feet’s fault. Halfway to the bus stop, they froze. They would not move. I stood there, riveted, until the bus cruised past my stop, barely slowing down before gliding on its way.

I get these mini–­panic attacks sometimes. Like at the start of summer, when I went to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Mom dropped me off outside an old church, and the receptionist pointed the way to the cafeteria. Halfway down the hall, I could hear the laughter of the other volunteers and kitchen staff. All I could think was What will they think when they see my chin?

My brain said Go, but my feet said Nope, no way.

I was at the soup kitchen because of Rabbi Harris. He was making all the kids who were starting the seventh-­grade Hebrew school class do forty hours of community service—­something to do with us having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and becoming adults in the Jewish tradition, that we needed to take on responsibilities and give back to the community. The thing is, I didn’t want to do anything on the list. All the options involved meeting new people or going somewhere I’ve never been before, and I really, really like my routines.

We have a sheet of paper that an adult is supposed to sign each time we volunteer, and I totally could have forged the supervisor’s name—­Mom wouldn’t have suspected anything—­but I’m not like that. I’m not a liar.

Over dinner that night, I confessed that I’d hidden in the church parking lot for two hours instead of going into the cafeteria. Mom dropped her fork on her plate with a loud clank and went and got Rabbi Harris’s list.

“We’re going to find you a new place to volunteer,” she said. She went down the list of Rabbi Harris’s suggested volunteer opportunities: tutoring, senior home, community center, backyard or basement cleanup.

“No,” I responded after each one. “No, no, no.”

“Will!” she finally said, nearly shouting. She took a deep, exasperated breath. “You can’t go through life turn­ing down every opportunity that comes along. You need to get out there and do something.”

“Why should I?” I asked back. “You never do anything.”

“We are not talking about me,” she said harshly. “We’re talking about your Bar Mitzvah responsibilities, which require you to do more than sit in your room all day taking care of your turtle collection.”

I resented the phrase “turtle collection,” but that’s pretty much what I did for the rest of the summer: I hung out in my room and read books and took care of my specimens. I have four kinds: a box turtle, a painted turtle, a musk turtle, and a small snapping turtle. I don’t know anyone else who loves turtles the way I do. I’d much rather be in my room, taking care of my turtles and their habitats, than doing anything else—with one notable exception: walking the trails of the Back 40.

The Back 40 is the nature preserve behind school. Some trails I’ve walked a hundred times. Some I’ve barely seen. In the Back 40, with the sun and the breeze, I can move freely, taking big steps and scanning the sky for soaring hawks, or I can inch along, searching the ground for herps. “Herps” is a nickname for reptiles and amphibians. It comes from the Latin “to creep.” I love looking for herps: toads and frogs and tiny garter snakes and especially turtles. In the Back 40, I’m alone but I’m never lonely.

When my science teacher, Ms. Kuper, first brought us out there in sixth grade, she explained that it was called the Back 40 because in the 1800s, farmers in Wisconsin used to be granted plots of land: forty acres in front of their homes, and forty in back. Our Back 40 isn’t forty acres, she explained, it’s more like four—­and it was never part of a farm. It’s too marshy and full of cattails and trees. But that’s the nickname the Prairie Marsh School gave it when the county lent the land to the school a long time ago, Ms. Kuper said, when some of our grandparents were probably sitting in that very classroom.

My parents weren’t from Horicon: Dad grew up in California, and Mom grew up in Milwaukee. They met and got married in Berkeley. That’s where I was born. We only came to Wisconsin because my aunt Mo lives an hour from here, and after Dad died, Mom wanted to be closer to her sister.

At first, I hated Marsh Madness. That’s what Ms. Kuper called the class excursions into the Back 40. We were supposed to be looking at the flora and fauna. I only noticed the mosquitoes and mud. But then I realized that no one ever went out there after school. That meant it could all be mine.

I spent more and more time there, spotting red-­winged blackbirds flying overhead, listening to the whoop of the whip-­poor-­will camouflaged in the trees. One by one, as spring turned into summer, I caught my turtle specimens. I didn’t tell anyone about it—­not even Ms. Kuper. You could say that I secretly brought the Back 40 home with me and kept it in four large rectangles of glass in my room.

YYY

Mom and I drive in silence. There may be no way to escape going to school, but I’ve invented a way to keep people from seeing my face. I’ve started wearing an extra-­extra-­large hooded sweatshirt, even when the school is hot and stuffy, so I can draw the strings and close it around my face. Also, I fill my backpack with big books, partially so I have something to read when I eat lunch alone, but mostly so I can set up a wall in front of me.

On the bus, the front seat is mine. Nobody can turn and see my face except the driver. Last year, my best friend, Shirah, would get annoyed because her volley­ball friends sat way in the back and she wanted to sit with them, but we had a deal: I copied her math homework and she copied my science homework. To do that, she had to sit in the front with me. We didn’t see it as cheating—we helped each other.

I hope we’ll continue that routine this year. I hope we’re over our rough patch. Back in third and fourth grades, Shirah used to come over every Saturday after synagogue, and we’d play hide-­and-­seek or we’d invent new snack recipes, like Nutella, Cheerios, and marshmallows, micro­waved into a steaming blob.

In sixth grade we weren’t how we used to be. Shirah made the volleyball team and got a million new friends. Now we only hang out at Hebrew School and on the bus.

“You’re awful quiet,” Mom says. “Nervous?”

“No,” I say.

“Not even a little?” she asks, a hint of a smile in her voice.

I shake my head.

“Okay, so what are you feeling?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say.

“Nothing at all?” she presses. When I don’t answer, she adds, “Will, I wish you’d talk to me. I want to be helpful.”

“If you want to be helpful, let me be homeschooled. You don’t even have to do anything, I’ll read my own books.”

Mom laughs, even though I’m not really joking.

We pull up to the curb outside school. “Have a great day, Will,” she says. “I think seventh grade is going to be much better than sixth.”

“I don’t,” I say, getting out of the car. “I think it’s going to be a living nightmare.” I slam the door.

“Beep!” she calls, leaning closer to the open window. “Will? Beep!”

This “beep” thing started a long time ago, just after Mom and I moved to Horicon from California. I hadn’t met Shirah yet, and Mom didn’t have any friends, so we would go to the budget theater on weekends—­they showed reruns and oldies for five dollars. In one movie, a bunch of secret agents were synchronizing their watches before a mission. Mom and I started doing the same thing whenever we were going separate ways. She’d say “beep” and touch her watch and I’d answer “beep.” I loved it.

But that was when I was little. I think it’s totally stupid now. I don’t want to tell her that, though. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

I muster a grumpy “beep” and turn toward the school. Once Mom drives away, I draw the strings on my hood and push through the school’s glass doors. The lobby and halls are empty.

This is bad. This is very, very bad. The receptionist sees me through her sliding window, standing there, frozen.

“Hello, young man,” she says, and points to the double doors. “Go in quietly; the assembly has started.”

Awards

  • SELECTION | 2021
    Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year

Praise

"Turtle Boy is a marvelous coming-of-age story . . . about bravery and the redemptive power of friendship. A perfect summer read." —Kveller

"Turtle Boy—both boy and book—is a winner." —Booklist, starred review

“A story about what it means to be brave when all you want to do is hide in your shell." —Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale

"A wholesome blend of humor and grief, Will’s story will appeal to younger and older readers alike. A beautiful debut that wears its heart on its sleeve." —The Nerd Daily

"A strong debut novel about grief, loss, and coming out of one's shell." —School Library Journal

"A satisfying arc, from sadness to dawning hope and strength." —Kirkus Reviews

"A masterful mingling of deeply resonant themes, including self-esteem, loneliness, loss, and the rewards of improbable friendships." —Publishers Weekly

“Wolken­stein por­trays mid­dle school bul­ly­ing with unflinch­ing accu­ra­cy. The ambi­tious nov­el bal­ances sev­er­al dif­fer­ent themes with real­is­tic char­ac­ters . . . . richly drawn and compelling. Tur­tle Boy is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed._ —Jewish Book Council

 


The New York Times’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century

The New York Times recently published their list “100 Best Books of the 21st Century.” We are pleased to announce that there are 49 titles published from Penguin Random House and its distribution clients included in this list. Browse our collection of Penguin Random House titles here. Browse the full list from The New York

Read more

2024 Middle and High School Collections

The Penguin Random House Education Middle School and High School Digital Collections feature outstanding fiction and nonfiction from the children’s, adult, DK, and Grupo Editorial divisions, as well as publishers distributed by Penguin Random House. Peruse online or download these valuable resources to discover great books in specific topic areas such as: English Language Arts,

Read more

PRH Education High School Collections

All reading communities should contain protected time for the sake of reading. Independent reading practices emphasize the process of making meaning through reading, not an end product. The school culture (teachers, administration, etc.) should affirm this daily practice time as inherently important instructional time for all readers. (NCTE, 2019)   The Penguin Random House High

Read more

PRH Education Translanguaging Collections

Translanguaging is a communicative practice of bilinguals and multilinguals, that is, it is a practice whereby bilinguals and multilinguals use their entire linguistic repertoire to communicate and make meaning (García, 2009; García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017)   It is through that lens that we have partnered with teacher educators and bilingual education experts, Drs.

Read more

PRH Education Classroom Libraries

“Books are a students’ passport to entering and actively participating in a global society with the empathy, compassion, and knowledge it takes to become the problem solvers the world needs.” –Laura Robb   Research shows that reading and literacy directly impacts students’ academic success and personal growth. To help promote the importance of daily independent

Read more

New Thematic Educator Guides: Teaching About Student Wellness

The COVID-19 global pandemic heightened issues around mental health as adolescents found themselves anxious and isolated from their peers and other systems of support. Educators today are increasingly aware that their impact extends beyond the classroom, and they know that teaching with a whole-child approach is critical if they want their students to succeed both

Read more