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Facing change
28/07/2020

Facing change


Evan Wolkenstein, our Debut Author of the Month, talked to ReadingZone about how his own life inspired his story, TURTLE BOY, about a boy with a facial disfigurement.

Q: Turtle Boy is your debut children's book; can you tell us about your day job(s)?


A: I'm a high school teacher, starting my 17th school year! I teach in a Jewish school where students learn all the usual material (Physics, Biology, Literature, History) but also, they pick Jewish topics, like the courses I teach: for example, Power and Perception (where we read the Torah and then watch the movie The Matrix and unpack what it means to have a special mission) and Comparative Religion (where we explore and appreciate Hindusim, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity and compare/contrast to Judaism).

I also teach "design-thinking" in a special design space called EVERlab where students learn how to make great projects like card-games in order to learn collaboration and project management.



Q: Can you tell us a little about Turtle Boy?


12-year-old Will Levine only likes two things: turtles and the nature preserve behind Prairie Marsh Middle School. For Will, life is getting worse - his precious nature preserve is in danger, he has a progressively worsening facial difference that has earned him an unfortunate nickname, and things with his only two friends, Max and Shirah, are falling apart.

Will meets a teenage Punk Rock drummer named RJ, who lives his life within the confines of a hospital room. Each boy discovers that they have strength to lend the other, and that life is too short to live in a shell.



Q: How did the novel come about, why did you decide you wanted to write this book?


A: Turtle Boy began as a comic strip called "How I Learned to Love My Face", about my diagnosis, surgery, and self-esteem recovery from a minor facial difference in my adolescent years.

I drew the comic because I'd been finding that while I'd grown to be at peace with who I am and how I look, still, it felt like my "7th Grade Self" was still in there, somewhere, and maybe he didn't get the memo that the teasing and the dysmorphia were like a bad dream - evaporated into nothingness.

I would find myself periodically troubled by my memories, and I knew I needed to shine a much brighter light into those dark years of 7th and 8th grade, and re-experience what I'd gone through in order to bring it into the light - if not for once and for all, then in a much more thorough way.



Q: Was it a difficult book to write, as it draws on some of your own experiences as a teenager?


A: There were times when I wondered if I had the courage to return to a time in my life that was often sad and lonely, but I had incredible people around me to help me feel like my feet would be planted on solid, loving ground. All of us have dark memories that can be painful to revisit, but when we do it with support and encouragement from people we feel safe with, it can be amazing illuminating and life affirming.

Now, it blows my mind to see the very name kids used to taunt me with as the title of a book that kids are reading all across the US and UK, and that the book might give them cheer and hope and courage. "Turtle Boy" is no longer a name of shame: it's a name of pride and life.



Q: Why did you decide to focus the story around Will's upcoming Bar Mitzvah, and the community service he must do?


A: Culture and heritage can give us the structures we need (whatever our backgrounds) to tackle life's challenges. It strikes me that Judaism has this coming-of-age ceremony where kids enter into the first stages of adulthood, where they are learning to make decisions about their lives and who they want to be.

It made sense for Will to encounter a person who will change his life forever in the context of a Bar Mitzvah community service project. Beyond that, I'm a big believer in taking traditions and updating them with our own creative spin - something I do in my family, and which Will does. In that sense, he models a balancing act that makes for resilient, meaningful living: tradition, modernity, and progress.



Q: The references to Jewish traditions in Turtle Boy add another layer to the story, was it important for you to have these woven through the book?


A: Besides the bar mitzvah, there are scenes with Torah chanting, ancient Aramaic prayers, Hebrew, and Sabbath rituals that anyone who has been to a synagogue service might recognize - and which newcomers to Judaism might both learn a lot from and leave with questions. I teach comparative religion so am always wanting to pique my students' curiosity about world traditions.



Q: As part of his community service, Will meets RJ who is ill in hospital, and who has a 'bucket list' that Will must complete for him. How did you decide what was going to be on that list? What would have been the hardest one on the list for you as a 12 year old?


A: That was an area where a lot of editing and revising needed to happen: the tasks needed to be exciting for RJ and also appropriate to help Will forward on his journey - as well as move the whole plot forward.

Some of them (Roller Coaster, Talent Show, Punk Rock Concert) are experiences I had as a youth which radically changed the way I related to fear, courage, and excitement - and hopefully you can feel the thrill in those scenes. I remember the first time I went on a roller coaster and how horribly terrifying it was...and then the second time I tried it, and how much better it was having done it once before. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

I wrote entire scenes with bucket list dreams which were fun to watch - but didn't add to the story's movement. They had to go.



Q: Will's nickname is Turtle Boy, because of his facial difference, but he also loves turtles. Did this part of the story involve a lot of research for you, or were you already knowledgeable about turtles?


I had to learn a lot! I Googled my 6th grade science teacher and found him, emailed him, and bombarded him with a million questions about turtles, how they survive winter, what they eat...and also, I read a dozen blogs. Indeed, to be a writer (or human being!) we need to always be learning, always asking questions.

Here's a random story: as background, the word "herps" is a Greek word meaning "creep" and people who love to hunt and study reptiles and amphibians call it "herping". I learned that as part of writing the book. One day, in Zion National Park, Utah, 1000 miles from home, I saw a guy with a t-shirt that said "Herp Much?" and I ran over and said: "I love your t-shirt!" It turned out he was the author of one of the blogs I'd been reading!



Q: Has writing Will's story changed you? What would you like your readers to take from Turtle Boy?


A: Yes, I feel like I've gotten to know a courageous and wonderful young man - who was inside me, but who needed to come into the world. It gives me more appreciation for the struggles I went through as a kid, and how I was no victim - I was a life-affirming survivor who made it through stronger and with my heart intact.

This realization solidifies my commitment to helping young people who might be lonely or feeling like an outsider...and is related to what I hope my readers, especially young readers, take away from the book. Our stories are not always easy, but surviving the difficult chapters of our life can turn us into better people - especially when we reach out to others: friends, family, teachers. You are not alone, and you are beautiful just the way you are.



Q: What are the top three things about writing that you learned when you'd finished writing your debut?


A: That it never, ever gets easier. I'm writing a spin-off sequel to Turtle Boy focused on Will's best friend Shirah (who I learned to love so much by writing about her), and even though I'm thrilled with Turtle Boy, it's just as hard to sit down and begin as it was the first time around.

New ghosts and demons haunt me from time to time - as they do to all of us, suggesting maybe we're not good enough. Maybe this time, the magic won't happen. But I'll take a page out of Shirah's book and say: "If the heart is willing? Come what may!" You can do it!

I also learned that writing requires a delicate balance of work and "letting it go" - stopping, reading, walking, day-dreaming - and it can't be rushed...but it can be "moved along". A writing routine is key.

And last: that hearing from young readers who are inspired by Will's story is a kind of joy I never knew possible.



Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing and illustrating?


A: I take my daughter Anna (she's 2) to the nature preserve to chase after lizards, avoid Poison Oak, eat snacks and watch the trees rustle in the wind. I play guitar and drums, and I doodle, cartoon and draw comics just for myself. And then I put it down and jump back into the book!



 
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