If you have been a teenager (or have known a teenager) in the past 12 years, you will already know of John Green and his Young Adult literary stardom. Not only that, but you will probably have a ranking of your favorite John Green books (mine being: “Looking for Alaska,” “The Fault in Our Stars” & “Paper Towns”.) Or you might have watched John and his brother Hank discuss world events and their interests on their video blog, or participated in their annual Project for Awesome to raise money and awareness to a favorite charity and decrease ‘World Suck.’ And, you probably know that John Green was named to Time’s 100 Most Influential People list a few years ago. For us fans, a new John Green book is the event of the year, and we all eagerly follow what he’s working on next, so, this review isn’t for all of you! (I’m sure you’ve already read his great new book, “Turtles All the Way Down.”) For those readers who don’t have any idea about any of this, or feel they missed the boat – I’d urge you to pay a visit to the Young Adult section in your library or bookstore and pick up a Lois Lowry novel, or Jacqueline Woodson, or Rainbow Rowell or John Green. In a sense, those great coming of age novels in which characters learn what life is all about and how to make sense of our surroundings still apply to all of us. Regardless of age, we’re all continually figuring it all out.
In “Turtles All the Way Down,” John Green’s young protagonist is Aza Holmes (“Holmesy” to her best friend,) “a scrawny little lightning-bolt” who has now reached her high school years and is struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the loss of her father. The book has two narratives. The first is Aza’s external life of the high school experience – homework, friends, boys, curfews, texting, and the looming ‘what’s next?’ of college and jobs. She mostly hangs out with her extroverted best friend Daisy, who writes Star Wars fan-fiction and has the motto “break hearts, not promises.” The girls get involved in a plot of trying to solve a mystery of the disappearance of a friend’s billionaire father and cash in on the reward money.
That, however, is just the surface. John Green’s books always get a lot deeper and are full of insight; the other narrative is Aza’s inner monologue of her anxious, intrusive thoughts. She cannot stop her worries about microorganisms and contracting disease, and she wonders how you can have a sense of ‘self’ when half of your body is composed of smaller organisms. The dialogue of thoughts continue throughout the book in masterful writing, alternating between Aza’s worries and her more rational self. She describes the tightening spiral of intrusive thoughts that always lead inward and never end, and how they disrupt her friendships, her interest in a boy, her day to day life, and her attempts to solve the mystery.
John Green tackles mental health issues head on. He writes from experience of his own struggles with OCD, with a conviction that you can learn to manage it with help. In his acknowledgements, he even lists resources to those who share his struggle. The best part of John Green’s books is that he is not writing for the sake of writing, but also to help improve things in this world. He gives us a sense of connection and lets people know they are not alone, and offers solidarity to those who are grappling with the big questions in life, or who have experienced loss or illness… and he really makes you laugh & think along the way.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on October 27, 2017.
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