Award-winning poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye set her latest middle-grade-fiction novel, "The Turtle of Michigan," in Ann Arbor
Naomi Shihab Nye is best known for her poetry—she was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010-15, and the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019-21.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that her newest novel for young readers, 2022's The Turtle of Michigan, is built from subtle, sharply observed moments more than a page-turning plot. (It was recently named a 2023 Michigan Notable Book and will be out in paperback on March 14.)
Set in Ann Arbor—where Nye has taught writing—Turtle begins with eight-year-old Aref (pronounced “R-F”) and his mother taking off in a plane from their homeland, Oman. Aref’s father, having flown to Michigan a few weeks earlier, reunites with them at the Detroit airport, then drives his family to their new, small apartment in Ann Arbor.
Aref’s parents have arranged to pursue their graduate studies at U-M for three years, so Aref had to leave behind his country and friends as well as his beloved, elderly grandfather Sidi. The English-fluent Aref is far more excited than anxious and is warmly embraced by neighbors, teachers, and new friends in Ann Arbor, but he struggles to understand why Sidi has no plans to visit the family in America.
Nye is skilled at putting herself into the mind of a child, as in this passage when Aref is reading an airplane magazine: “He learned that people in Michigan can be called three things: Michigander, Michiganian, and Michiganite. Kids in Michigan probably had a hard time learning how to spell these things. At home in Oman, people were called Omanis. That was easier.”
Locals will appreciate the fact that Aref attends Martin Luther King Elementary (my husband’s alma mater), and he loves visiting the Wave Fields and Nichols Arboretum with his family. Culinary Treetown landmarks like Fleetwood Diner and Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger get a shout-out, as does the farmers’ market.
And, like true locals, Aref’s family roams the town with ease while the Michigan games are happening at the stadium.
Turtle offers some lyrical moments of beauty, particularly in regard to Aref’s longing for reconnection with his now-distant grandfather:
The night sky looked tipped here. Stars floated in different places. They wore an altered gaze. There was mist in the air. Places with lakes and rivers had lots of mist. Also, when they went to the desert together, Sidi had said the moon would be an old friend always, looking calmly down on Aref, carrying Sidi’s thoughts to him wherever Aref went. It would be their link. But Sidi may have been wrong about this. Sometimes the moon over Michigan looked like a different moon, farther away, shrouded with a foggy scarf. And Aref couldn’t hear Sidi’s thoughts very well at all.
Nye also renders, with a light, poetic touch, the identity divide arising within Aref, pulling him both back to his homeland and toward his new home:
He felt it was his job not to forget where he came from. No one else in his class had ever seen Oman. No one else had held a falcon. Sometimes he felt as if Oman were living inside his own body, like blood, like bones, it seemed so close. Sometimes when he awakened, he forgot entirely he was in Michigan and looked out the window expecting to see the Arabian Sea in the distance.
The Turtle of Michigan derives its title from the 2009 Nye novel that preceded it, The Turtle of Oman, which focuses on Aref’s struggle to face this big move across the world.
In The Turtle of Michigan, an empty terrarium sits in Aref’s room, awaiting a pet turtle (Aref’s favorite animal). But when his family spots a group of turtles in the wild, Aref—given his own experiences—is horrified at the thought of separating one of them from its family and friends, opting instead to make his terrarium an herb garden.
The Turtle of Michigan is a quiet novel focused on the experience of a young boy’s entry into an entirely new world. The only dramatic question driving the story forward concerns Sidi, and whether Aref will get to see him again while his family is in America.
At 322 pages, that might be more than Aref-age readers will have the patience for.
But if the character-driven Turtle connects with your child, part of its narrative magic involves the way mundane things (to us)—like snow in winter—can become, through another’s eyes, an instant source of wonder:
All across Ann Arbor, the boots started humming in closets and the sleds started shivering and hoping for someone to remember they were waiting, waiting, to glide. … (Aref) opened the front door and ran out onto the white sidewalk in his socks. … He twirled in place. He was the first person to step in this patch. Every footprint was his. His page.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.