New Young Adult Novel Celebrates Personal Growth and Friendship

The Federation is pleased to announce that the 2022 Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Prize will be awarded to M. Evan Wolkenstein for his book Turtle Boy. This is the first time a book written for the young adult market has received the Cowan Award.

Cover art for Turtle Boy (Delacorte, 2020)
Cover art for Turtle Boy (Delacorte, 2020)

M. Evan Wolkenstein’s debut young adult novel Turtle Boy, a PJ Our Way™ book which also received the prestigious 2021 Sydney Taylor Award, follows the story of a seventh grader named Will Levine who is bullied at school. He is given the unwelcome epithet "Turtle Boy" because of his unusually formed chin.

As Will prepares for his bar mitzvah, his rabbi assigns him a community service project that changes his outlook and makes a profound impact on his life.

Wolkenstein, who lives in Marin County, has taught at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco since 2006.

M. Evan Wolkenstein
M. Evan Wolkenstein

The book’s origins lay in Wolkenstein’s own early years in Wisconsin, as he had a facial abnormality similar to Will’s that made for an often-painful adolescence. Well into adulthood, Wolkenstein wrote a comic strip reflecting on this experience and the evolution of his self-image. A literary agent reached out and asked him to consider telling the story as a novel.

Wolkenstein took up the challenge, pushing himself to “explore the darkness of our past and how to come to terms with it.” Though the original focus of the novel was limited to issues around Will’s face, what ultimately emerged was a much fuller coming-of-age story that examined relationships and feelings of isolation and loss.

Exploring the Jewish side of Turtle Boy

In spite of Wolkenstein’s background as a student and teacher of Jewish texts, the strong Jewish dimension wasn’t part of his original vision for the book, which was geared for a general readership. But, he recalls, “My agent really pushed me and said, ‘You know, you have a strong identity, you take your Judaism seriously, you live a Jewish life, you probably have a lot to say about growing up Jewish, and I think your readers would gain a lot from that.’ So that started my process of trying to figure out what Judaism has to do with the story, and all these different questions coalesced and took on a life of their own and turned into Turtle Boy.”

The book has reached an appreciative readership, including some readers for whom the story has special resonance.

A mother will write to me and say, ‘My child has a health condition, and we read your book together late into the night, and we cried,’ and this is amazing to me. I mean, I cried while I was writing it. It is so amazing to think that somehow both the brokenheartedness and the healing could get onto the page and fly through the air to somebody else's house a continent away and keep them up past their bedtime reading with their mother. The transformative power of words to bring people together and to open the heart up and bring it outwards, just feels really profound.

- M. Evan Wolkenstein

Wolkenstein is presently at work on a sequel to Turtle Boy.

  Dan Alter (Photograph by Adrianne Mathiowetz)
Dan Alter (Photograph by Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Because an unprecedented number of works of poetry were submitted, the Cowan Awards committee elected to award a one-time prize for poetry. The recipient of this award is Berkeley resident Dan Alter for his debut book, My Little Book of Exiles (Maida Vale, 2022). This pronouncedly personal collection of poems explores the feelings of connection and displacement across place and time, from Israel to Alaska to Berkeley.

The awards will be presented at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco on September 15, 2022. Details and registration are posted on the Federation’s community-wide calendar.

The Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Prize recognizes emerging Bay Area writers who have made an exceptional contribution to literary arts through a uniquely Jewish perspective. Robert Cowan (1935-2018) established the endowed award in memory of his wife Anne, who passed away in 2004.

Categories: Awards, Community


August 09, 2022


Howard Freedman