Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
“Turtle Boy” is a young adult novel just out this month by Evan Wolkenstein, who teaches comparative religion and Bible at Jewish Community High School of the Bay. The San Francisco writer, 45, says he banged it out partly to keep pace with the keystone project efforts of JCHS’ graduating class.
The protagonist of the title, seventh-grader Will Levine, is dealing with more than the usual number of issues for a kid his age: his father died, he lives alone with his mother, and he is diagnosed with micrognathia, a maxillofacial condition that is making his chin recede in relation to the rest of his features. Heartless peers bully him, and he recedes into his hoodie. Only his pet turtles bring him joy.
Into the breach steps the cool and kindly Rabbi Harris, who hooks him up with a hospitalized older teen, ostensibly to fulfill a school requirement for community service hours. But the rabbi is following an intuition that the two boys will serve a need in one another for both friendship, and growth.
We caught up with Wolkenstein during the busy final days of the school year to ask him about his book, its characters, the problem of bullying, and his views on Jewish learning.
J.: Where did you come from, and how did you find your way to JCHS?
Evan Wolkenstein: I grew up in a small town outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is kind of where “Turtle Boy” is set. After college, I lived in Israel for five years, studying at Hebrew University and at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. I came back to the U.S. in my early 30s, started teaching at JCHS, and I’ve been here ever since!
You also studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Tell us about the path to your first novel.
I had a sense and a passion as a college student that I wanted to be a writer, and I wrote short stories throughout my 20s. In my 30s, I took a break. And when I came back to writing with “Turtle Boy,” it was an entirely different mode and genre, but it seems to have worked out.
What was the genesis of this work?
I actually started writing it as an autobiographical comic strip. People liked it and it gave me the idea for this novel.
Did you personally experience the medical condition that your character, Will, developed?
Yes, I did. I think I wrote this book to work through the story that I had been carrying around since I was an adolescent. It’s the story of going from hating my body, my face, the way I looked, and believing that it was going to doom me to unhappiness — to the place where I am today. I had the surgery [that the character Will had] and it resolved certain things, but it did not fix how I felt inside. By the time I was in my 30s, however, I was feeling much happier with who I am as a person. I was a style writer for a while, and was doing style transformations, mostly for men who were not happy with the way they looked. I grew more comfortable with seeing myself in pictures and began feeling really proud in terms of how far I had come. So when I drew that comic strip, it felt like the final step in metabolizing that story.
Why did you decide to write this story as young adult fiction?
I think almost every adolescent feels a lot of what I felt, even though it might be about different particulars. We all feel unhappy with certain things about who we were and worry about what it might mean for our futures. I think that’s universal.
So I thought if I put this into a novel that young people could see themselves in, it could be one step in helping them to see that there’s a long road ahead of them, and that road can lead towards self-acceptance. And not only self-acceptance, but also learning to accept other people for who they are, which my main character Will also needs to do. Part of the effect of the self-loathing is that he also doesn’t really have much heart or compassion for others until he goes through what he needs to go through, which is the journey from being a self-obsessed, unhappy adolescent to learning to dwell a little less on how you look to others and more about how to reach out and connect to them.
Do you think there is a need for fiction to help teens deal with the reality of genetic and physical conditions like Will’s?
Yes. There’s this idea that text can either be mirrors or windows. I think fiction can be both. A good story is about empathy and identifying with the person whose story it is. I could have written an informative nonfiction book, but that wasn’t the mission I felt called to do.
As a teacher, it is your work to impart Jewish values, however they come up. Was it a stretch to find the parts of Jewish learning that could apply to this issue?
Helping young people to see their Jewish inheritance from a transformed, new and renewed perspective is my jam. That is everything that I’m about. My passion is Jewish education.
The part that was more of a puzzle to solve was which Jewish lessons needed to come out in the story because there are so many things that could apply: tikkun olam, visiting the sick, and on and on. But every idea that came up also had to serve the plot. So whatever Rabbi Harris taught had to both intrigue the reader about some aspect of Jewish civilization, and help the reader understand the inner meaning of what’s going on in the story.
Is Rabbi Harris based on a rabbi you’ve known, or a compilation?
I channeled him from my own inner alter ego. All the characters are me, but Rabbi Harris is the teacher-me. At the same time, my teacher-me is inspired by people I know: I see my childhood best friend in him, and some of my teachers at Pardes. Those are the people I summon in myself when I’m teaching.
By your description, we picture him looking like Jerry Garcia.
That’s intentional. And he drives a Volkswagen and keeps Hostess Ding Dongs in his glove compartment. One of his goals is to show Will that being Jewish isn’t about being shoved into a mold. It’s figuring out what Judaism is going to be for you, in dialogue with the traditions that we inherit. What I want my readers to take away is that this Judaism that is being handed to you as a 12- or 13-year-old becoming a bar mitzvah is yours to take, select, adapt, invent and bring with you to hold you up and help you hold others up, as you enter into adulthood. That is the heart of what I see being a Jew in the modern world is about.