For more than a quarter of a century, Douglas Wood’s sage Old Turtle has been imparting messages of hope, acceptance, peace, and the interconnectedness of all beings to readers of all ages. First introduced in Old Turtle, most recently released by Scholastic Press in 1992, the tortoise reappeared in 2003’s Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, and returns again in Old Turtle: Questions of the Heart, due on March 28. In Wood’s latest picture book, which is illustrated by Greg Ruth, Old Turtle provides answers to questions about such topics as the purpose of life, the essence of happiness, the importance of family, and the meaning of death.
Old Turtle sprang to life one day in the fall of 1989, while Wood was leaving a Minnesota elementary school, where he had given a talk and musical presentation about nature, endangered species, and caring for the environment. “As I drove away from the school, I suddenly heard the opening words of Old Turtle in my head,” he recalled. “It came to me as a song—one with no music to it. When I arrived back at my parents’ house, where I was staying at the time, I found a quiet corner and a yellow legal pad, and I wrote the story in half an hour. I liked it a lot, and puttered around with it for about a month, not changing a great deal, just getting the clarity and purity right.”
In fall 1991, the Minnesota author published the book with Pfeifer-Hamilton, a small regional press in Duluth. The publisher lined up local artist Cheng-Khee Chee to illustrate Old Turtle, and sent Wood on many school and bookstore visits. The book gained significant sales momentum—and garnered attention from well beyond the Upper Midwest. Scholastic acquired the rights to Pfeifer-Hamilton’s children’s line in 2001, and released a new edition of Old Turtle in 1992 .
“Booksellers had really embraced Old Turtle, and the book became a major word-of-mouth indie success,” recalled Anamika Bhatnagar, associate publisher of Scholastic Inc., who edited Questions of the Heart. “At that time, one of our sales reps in the Upper Midwest reported that the book was selling like gangbusters in his territory. It was clear that Old Turtle’s message about living in harmony with others and with the natural world was resonating with readers of all ages, and we wanted to bring the book to a larger trade audience and promote it to the school and library market.”
The publisher has achieved that goal: sales of Old Turtle and Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, illustrated by Jon J Muth, have topped 550,000 copies. To coincide with the release of Questions of the Heart, Scholastic Press is issuing new editions of the first two Old Turtle titles, with refreshed covers featuring full-bleed cover art. “Even though the books have different illustrators, repackaging the earlier books with covers that match the look of the new book really brings and holds the three together beautifully,” said Bhatnagar.
Wood feels fortunate that Old Turtle has been brought to life by three artists who bring their own interpretations to the stories while maintaining a visual consistency. “Mr. Chee really captured the character of Old Turtle, and Jon Muth did a beautiful job with the difficult task of staying true to that original vision yet making it his own,” he said. “And Greg Ruth was able to build on those two artists’ work while imparting his own vision. Greg makes the series all the richer by capturing the evolution of Old Turtle’s personality. His art literally glows.”
For Ruth, who is friends with Muth, illustrating Questions of the Heart was both an intimidating and a comforting task. “It was a very challenging book to tackle, and no less so because of the shockingly great work that came before me in this series,” he said. “I felt as though I was standing on the shoulders of giants. At first it was very daunting, knowing there’s no way I could do what Jon does at the level he does it. But the fact that his and Chee’s styles are so different from each other kind of gave me permission to do something that was inherently my own, yet honored their tradition. I find when I’m most nervous about a project, my work is at its best and I’m having the most fun—if there’s enough uncertainty, I know I’m on the right track.”
Wood doesn’t yet know whether Old Turtle will have a fourth picture book incarnation, but his mind—and ears—remain open. “She’s not whispering in my ear yet, but I’ve been preoccupied,” he said. “This is a big spring for me, with Questions of the Heart coming out this month, and my adult memoir, Deep Woods, Wild Waters being published in April by University of Minnesota Press. Completing the memoir was occupying much of my mental space. But now it is finished, so who knows? Old Turtle just might start talking to me again.”
Old Turtle: Questions of the Heart by Douglas Wood, illus. by Greg Ruth. Scholastic Press, $19.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-439-32111-2