San Antonio author Naomi Shihab Nye’s new book ‘The Turtle of Michigan’ keeps a promise to her young readers

Some young readers were very taken with San Antonio writer Naomi Shihab Nye’s 2014 novel “The Turtle of Oman” with one big exception — the ending.

The book is about a boy named Aref who is a little worried about his family’s impending move from Oman to the United States. The final pages follow him the night before he is to board a plane for the very first time to make the trip.

Children in North Carolina, whom Nye met when the book was chosen for a community reading program aimed at elementary school students, wanted more. They wanted to know if Aref got to the United States OK, if he had been able to make friends, if he was able to adjust to his new school from him. They told her they didn’t like that the book ends before this new chapter in Aref’s life began.

“They were quite bossy about it in a wonderful way,” Nye said. “They were really invested, and caring, and I just loved them so much that I ended up pledging to them from the North Carolina stage that I would do it.”

Before that, Nye had no intention of writing a sequel to the book. But she is a woman of her word. “The Turtle of Michigan,” her new book for young readers, picks up where the first novel left off. It follows Aref as he explores his new home in Ann Arbor, attends an art camp and — spoiler alert! — makes a lot of new friends.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s new children’s book, “The Turtle of Michigan,” is a sequel to her previous work, “The Turtle of Oman.” The artwork is by aa North Carolina student who read the first book as part of a community reading project.

Kin Man Hui /Staff photographer

The new book will be available March 15.

“I didn’t want him to have terrible things happen to him when he gets there,” Nye said. “I wanted him to be like a regular person who’s going through what many of us go through all the time, which is some anxiety, some wistfulness, hoping to fit in, just regular stuff.”

Aref attends Martin Luther King Elementary School, which is based on the real-life school of the same name in Ann Arbor. Nye has worked with students there a few times and has become quite fond of it.

“It’s a very multicultural school,” she said. “The teachers are so devoted to peace and knowledge amongst these beautiful, multihued kids with so many different backgrounds.”

Her version of the school has an anti-bullying and reconciliation program in which first-graders mediate disputes. It is based on a similar program she encountered at a school in Indiana.

“I couldn’t believe that 17-year-olds — because that was a K-12 school — I couldn’t believe that 17-year-olds were putting forth their problems in front of these first-graders,” she said. “They allowed me to visit the club. It was a session after school, and they allowed me to sit in, just quietly sit in the back corner, and I was so blown away by that.”

Nye, who served as the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019 to 2021, is often struck by how perceptive children can be.

“I really think of children as wisdom figures. I always have, my whole life,” she said. “And I’ve always felt that kids have a lot more thoughtfulness than sometimes adults give them credit for. And that they really could see through a lot of superficialities.”

Nye is primarily a poet, though she has written several novels, as well, including the semi-autobiographical YA book “Habibi.” “The Turtle of Oman” was her first novel for elementary school readers. She recently learned that it is being translated into Arabic.

“It’s going to be published in Oman. So that makes me super happy,” she said. “I’ve had books translated and printed and published in other countries, but this is very, very special to me, because it’s my father’s first language, and, finally, I will have a book in Arabic.”

With her promise to those bossy little North Carolinians fulfilled with “The Turtle of Michigan,” Nye is working on a new poetry collection about motherhood. She began working on it shortly after the death of her mother de ella three months ago.

“It’s not just about my mom, it’s about moms in general — being a mom, moms in the world,” said Nye, who is a mother and grandmother herself. “I hope some of it will be funny.”

She’s glad to be immersed in a new poetry project.

“I think poems are so easy,” she said. “I have full respect for novelists, because novels are so much harder. Just keeping a train of thought going for a whole novel, it’s hard.”

That said, she enjoyed all of her time in Aref’s world. She got to know him a little better working on the new book and she is glad for that.

“Working with a child narrator, it was refreshing to my mind,” she said. “I was a child a long time ago — I’ve been an adult a lot more — and it’s just so refreshing to work in the mind of a child.” | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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