Mequon native Evan Wolkenstein grew up with a medical condition called micrognathia, which causes his chin to recede into his face. Bullies at school said he looked like a turtle.
Now, he’s published a fictional book inspired by his childhood experience. “Turtle Boy” follows a Jewish seventh grader who struggles with self-image after he’s diagnosed with the same condition.
“I think the message can speak strongly to us all, that a change in mindset is possible, and it can open up lots of new doors,” Wolkenstein said, who moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 2006. “We all feel ugly and alone sometimes.”
Random House Children’s Books published “Turtle Boy” May 5.
The novel is set in Horicon, Wisconsin. Wolkenstein said he tried setting the book in San Francisco, but it didn’t work.
“It wasn’t natural to me,” Wolkenstein said. “Even though I love living in the Bay area, I think like a Wisconsinite.”
Wolkenstein, 46, said his mentality is Midwestern, having grown up in Mequon. He went to Congregation Sinai and attended University of Wisconsin in Madison. His mom taught at a Jewish day school.
Wolkenstein said music and fashion helped him build self-confidence. Playing in a band forced him to get comfortable on stage in front of other people. As an adult, Wolkenstein started a men’s style blog and gained more confidence in his appearance.
“As a kid, I was very embarrassed of my face, and now I was taking pictures and posting pictures of me in outfits,” Wolkenstein said. “I started to think more generally about how people see you, and how you think about how you see yourself.”
His wife encouraged him to write and illustrate a comic strip called “How I Learned to Love My Face.” An agent saw the comic and asked Wolkenstein if he would turn the story into a novel.
While “Turtle Boy” is fictional, autobiographical elements appear throughout. The main character steps outside his comfort zone when he takes up drumming — similar to the role music had in helping Wolkenstein find himself.
A nature preserve featured in the book, called the “Back 40,” is actually located behind Wolkenstein’s old middle school. The main character’s favorite teacher is based on a real teacher at the school.
“It was really satisfying to be able to write to my sixth–grade teacher and say, ‘Hi, you haven’t seen me in 35 years, but I wrote a book, and this character is based on you,’” Wolkenstein said.
Jewish traditions also play a large role in “Turtle Boy.” The main character’s bar mitzvah project, along with encouragement from his rabbi, spur his character arc.
Wolkenstein teaches at a Jewish community school in San Francisco, and he studied in Israel for five years after college. He said writing his character as Jewish was key to creating a story authentic to himself.
“Your heritage, whether it’s Jewish or something else, is a thing that can give you strength and structure for making sense of who you are,” Wolkenstein said. “There’s an incredible amount of power and depth locked within it.”