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An Interview with Evan Wolkenstein, Debut MG Author of TURTLE BOY
Aug 13th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

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It’s my honor to have Evan Wolkenstein on my blog. See my five star Goodreads review to learn more about what I thought of this incredible debut MG novel.

From Goodreads, About Turtle Boy

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.

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

“Turtle Boy–both boy and book–is a winner.” —Booklist, starred review

“A beautiful debut that wears its heart on its sleeve” —TheNerdDaily

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

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

Interview:

Share a novel secret or secrets about your book. It could be anything that readers would never know just from reading it like your inspiration for a name, the reason why you chose the setting, something humorous that took place while writing.

Turtle Boy began as a kind of therapeutic art project – I’m an amateur illustrator and a fan of comics and graphic novels, so I drew an autobiographical comic called How I Learned to Love My Face about growing up with a facial difference, the process of having it corrected, and how the echoes of that experience still reach me, three decades later, in unexpected ways. 

I’ll also mention that the entire book was written with a single musical soundtrack on my headphones. Music for Cats. Yes, a musician-composer named David Teie wrote a gorgeous album of music intending it to be listened to by cats. Apparently, it also soothes my inner writing feline. Okay, and before you laugh, try giving it a listen. Seriously, it’s peaceful and lovely and also, David is a really nice person. I emailed him to thank him for writing the music that helped me write a novel and he was very, very gracious. 

You narrated your own audiobook, which received a starred review from Booklist. I am in awe. Tell us why you wanted to do the audiobook and what that experience was like.

I’m an auditory person – I sing constantly, drum on every available surface with my hands (it drives people crazy), and experience the world through music and rhythm. For that reason, music and rhythm play significantly into Turtle Boy – from the rock beats Will learns from RJ, to the chanted Jewish prayers. I wanted those sounds to reach the ears of my listeners authentically – from the “Boom-Pack Boom-Boom-Pack” of RJ’s homemade drum set to the Aramaic mourner’s prayers. Beyond this, while Turtle Boy isn’t pure autobiography, it is heavily influenced by my past, and sharing the story with my own voice meant a great deal to me. 

Bonus round: What would you prefer?

Chanukah, Passover, Purim, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Shabbat, other?

I love this question – every Jewish holiday I love, because they’re so close to me. There are also things I dread about them! In that way, they are like family members whom you adore to pieces… but they also get under your skin! That’s part of having a life-long connection to anything — the relationship is always deep and ambivalent and nuanced. I start worrying about Yom Kippur a month before it happens, I get anxious about my own preparation, but year after year, I reach some deep, deep spiritual places when surrounded by the songs and prayers of my people. And Passover, sharing the taste of Matzo Brei with my two year old is delightful, the themes of liberation – so powerful. Then again, the physical effects of that much processed flour? Not great. Still, these are my holidays, my memories, my nostalgia, and my family identity. I need it all. That said, I’m experiencing every holiday through my little girl’s eyes – and so Shabbat, which comes every week – plays a bigger and bigger role, as does the puppet we use to add joy to Zoom Shabbat services. 

Writing, revising, reading?

REVISING. Writing is painful, painful, painful. Every new scene feels like an exercise in imposter syndrome. BUT! The best feeling is when you take a couple of scenes that are limping along, remove some baggage, sharpen the language, lash them together and then there’s the VROOOM!!! as they supercharge each other and start driving off in a cloud of dust…and you type and type and type to keep up with them! So exhilarating! 

Introvert, extrovert or ambivert?

Ambivert. I love being with students, in a crowded synagogue, chatting with colleagues, and I’m drawn to the spotlight. But it depletes me. I also need a lot of quiet time — me and my writing, a comfy chair with a nice view, a mug of coffee. Noise cancelling headphones. And no, you can’t join me! Get out!

Matzoh ball soup, bagels, cream cheese (with or without lox), brisket, gefilte fish, challah, noodle kugel, chummus, pastrami or corned beef (on rye), other?

Oh, wow. That’s a great menu. As a kosher-eater in Marin county, a hot pastrami sandwich is impossible. And the stuff out of packages isn’t great. But the bigger problem is that there’s a platonic sandwich already floating around in my mind. 

I was vegetarian until I was about 35. One day, on a trip to NYC with some students, I brought a group to 2nd Ave Deli. I ate some vegetarian thing – who knows what it was – and after all the students got their pre-ordered sandwiches, there was one leftover hot pastrami on rye that no one claimed. It seemed silly to let it go to waste, so I took a bite and was immediately shlorked into a dream world of magical pastrami-eleves who danced around me singing Hava Nagila. Once we left the deli, the spell wore off. And since that fateful day, I’ve been chasing the Kosher dragon.

Actor, stage crew, director, or audience member?

ACTOR/DIRECTOR: As a gemini (I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but hey, I’m gonna start with that), I inhabit two roles: I find deep joy in sharing my voice with the world. It’s what drove me, year after year, to write and complete a novel. That’s my actor side. But in my work with students, I frequently take on the role of director: supporting, focusing, guiding and cheerleading my students as they perform various feats of talent and daring – sometimes at their desks and sometimes on actual stage. It’s deeply meaningful to me. I’m not sure I could sustainably do one without the other.

About Evan Wolkenstein:

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 daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Find him on:

Twitter @EvanWolkenstein, Instagram EvanWolkenstein, Goodreads or at EvanWolkenstein.com

From Evan’s autobiographical comic, How I Learned to Love My Face

Little kids are like the first humans in the Garden of Eden. They don’t know about good or bad, beautiful or ugly. When I was little, I got lots of attention for my long eyelashes and pinchable cheeks. I didn’t know or care what the fuss was about. I loved stuffed animals and Pac-Man. 


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