Sunday, May 20, 2012

Something from Nothing: Paper Towns

Paper Towns by John Green
Dutton Juvenille, 2008

I have a long list of authors and titles that I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read yet. John Green was absolutely on it - when I first read Looking for Alaska a little over a year ago, I was also upset that I hadn't heard much about him before then and that I was so late to the party. I went on to read An Abundance of Katherines and Will Grayson, Will Grayson and I was one of the many thousands who pre-ordered and then went on to be emotionally rocked by The Fault in Our Stars (which I successfully convinced the school I work for to put on our summer reading list this year!) Only one solo-Green novel remained, which was a challenge because it is always checked out from our library - Paper Towns.

Quentin (aka Q) is a few short weeks away from his high school graduation, and he's had a pretty average life so far. The only part that he considers to be particularly extraordinary is that he lives next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman, the adventurous girl who was his best friend when they were little who doesn't even speak to him now but he's in love with her anyway. But then one night, she shows up at his window dressed as a ninja and takes him out for a night of bending the law and doing the unthinkable. And then she disappears without a trace, no one knowing where she's gone or why. So Q becomes a man possessed, piecing together where she could be and if he ever really knew her at all.

This was a case of me reading a book at the perfect time of year - I recently graduated (though with my M.S.) and the end of the school year for the district where I work is just around the corner. All of Q's feelings about this particular crossroads of his life were incredibly realistic and relatable. I also enjoyed the secondary characters of this story - they each had a distinct purpose and reminded me of someone I know or used to know. (Though, to my knowledge, none of my friends' parents collected Black Santas, though it's entirely possible they just kept that fact hidden.) Another aspect of characterization that Green is masterful with is having a character who's not present still make a huge impact - though Margo isn't actually with Q for most of the story, you still feel like you know her, or rather, realize that like Q, you can never really know her. I also think the inclusion of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, specifically "Song of Myself," was completely brilliant - I struggled with that particular work when I read it in college, but I'm now completely excited to give it another try.

To those critics who feel that Green has a particular style to his characters and storytelling, I agree and disagree. Were there parts of this story that reminded me a lot of Looking for Alaska? Yes. Margo and Alaska have their similarities, as do Q and Pudge. And like An Abundance of Katherines, this trip also featured the independence and discoveries that come with a road trip. Green's characters are teens who are unashamed of being smart or different and I applaud that move - it makes me wish these books existed when I was 16 because I really could have used them.

All in all, it's easy for me to see why this book is never on my library's shelves. It's smart. It's funny. It keeps you on your toes. It's honest. It's at the high level that we've come to expect from John Green.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading.

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  1. This is my favorite of the John Green novels; when I was teaching high school, I frequently had students ask me why all of "great" literature had to be so sad. This book dealt with serious issues--depression, death, coming of age--without being depressing. And I love that the character who struggles the most (Margo) is both popular and cool. She's weird, but it's not like she's gone through high school without being accepted.

    Our AP-equivalent American Authors class read this as their summer reading, and besides the requisite reading guide, their assignment was an essay they wrote about a scavenger hunt we sent them on. They were required to go with their advisory groups, which were made up of kids that weren't necessarily taking the class, and whom they may or may not have the same classes with. Easy to tie into Whitman's "everyman." Awesome.

    Like his other books a lot, but found the traumas to be essentially a bit trite.

    AND... Congratulations, Librarian Monica! Love the blog. :)

    1. Laura, I love to hear that you actually taught this novel! It only goes to validate my firm belief that YA literature shouldn't be looked down upon as fluff because it takes on the questions of "great" literature in a way that I know a lot of people find to be much more relatable than the high-brow stories of the more traditional cannon.

      I really enjoyed this one. The Fault in Our Stars continues to be my favorite, but I have to say I liked Q and Margo's story better than Looking for Alaska - I know some people may find this scandalous, but it's just my opinion! Not that LfA was bad, but it's like you said - Margo is continually struggling, and I really loved watching Q's growth.

      Thank you so much for your kind thoughts! I miss our days of CI402 observations together at JMS =)