A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Turtles All the Way Down is best-selling author John Green's first novel since 2012's runaway success, The Fault in Our Stars. While that book tackled the issue of teens with cancer, this book centers on a protagonist suffering from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behavior. Green, who has publicly shared he also has OCD, based the main character's struggles on his own lived experience. As in all of Green's books, the teen characters are unabashed nerds: incredibly intelligent, well read, and able to discuss everything from architecture and visual art to philosophy and microbiology with as much ease as they talk about Star Wars trivia and the joys of fanfiction. There is nothing age-inappropriate in the book, so expect a smattering of strong language (including occasional use of "f--k" and "s--t") and some brief kissing scenes, but no sex. Parents who read this book with their teens should have a host of topics to discuss with them, starting with the importance of adolescent mental health.
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What's the story?
In TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN, John Green tells the story of Indianapolis 16-year-old Aza Holmes, who struggles with debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, repetitive intrusive thoughts, and extreme anxiety. Aza has a loyal best friend, Daisy Ramirez, an enthusiastic extrovert who can talk about anything with anyone. Aza's unwanted thoughts make her feel disconnected from her self and the here and now; her main preoccupation is that she'll contract a bacterial infection like C. diff. When a local Indianapolis billionaire goes missing and police offer a $100,000 reward for information about his whereabouts, Daisy recalls that Aza had attended grief camp with the billionaire's son, Davis. (Aza's father and Davis' mother each died when the kids were in elementary school). Daisy, who comes from a low-income family, persuades Aza to play detective with her and get reacquainted with Davis -- $100,000 would help them both go to college. Once Aza meets Davis again, however, they rekindle a bond that equally thrills and terrifies Aza.
Is it any good?
John Green delves deeper into the dark reaches of the teenage brain than ever before, creating a remarkable if occasionally hard-to-read story about a girl living with anxiety and OCD. While neither the protagonist nor the simple plot is as initially engaging as those in The Fault in Our Stars or Paper Towns, the story takes off once Aza rediscovers Davis. They're both half-orphaned and lost, but for different reasons. An avid astronomer, Davis looks up to the stars, whereas Aza concentrates on her self -- or selves, since she's focused on her body as a biodome for microorganisms (the body being roughly 10 percent human and 90 percent microbial). Green brings them together in a sweetly romantic way, but the romance is somewhat doomed, considering Aza's myriad neuroses (kissing, while initially pleasant, turns sour once the intrusive thoughts about the billions of bacteria they've shared begin).
For a book less than 300 pages long, Turtles All the Way Down requires a lot of unpacking and invites the reader to think, think, think about everything from mental illness to first love to the intricacies of Star Wars mythology. Like Aza's unique name (from A to Z and back again), there are endless possibilities for conversation points stemming from Green's themes. There are also extended therapy sessions, mini-lessons on the biological importance of the tuatara (a nearly extinct lizard-like creature that lives past 150 years and is actually more like a dinosaur than a lizard), and a great deal of existential angst. Green inserts gentle doses of humor, usually courtesy of Aza's vivacious best friend Daisy (who writes Star Wars fanfiction as a hobby), but this is ultimately a dark book about the trappings of mental illness. It also has one of the most memorable endings in young adult literature. Green's books aren't about happily ever afters but about the hope and love of moving forward, no matter how difficult that might seem.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the depiction of Aza's mental illness in Turtles All the Way Down. Does the book make you feel empathetic toward those living with mental illness or compulsive thinking disorder?
Who's a role model in the story? What character strengths does that person display?
How did the ending make you feel? What are some of the messages about first love and hope and the future?
What resources does the book share to help those living with mental illness? How can you help others suffering with OCD and other mental health issues seek the care they need?
- Author: John Green
- Genre: Coming of Age
- Topics: Friendship, Misfits and Underdogs, Science and Nature
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Dutton Books
- Publication date: October 10, 2017
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 14 - 18
- Number of pages: 304
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: November 4, 2020
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