Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Paper Towns" by John Green

As anyone who reads my blog with regularity knows, I tend to stay away from young adult contemporary fiction (well, recently, I've stayed away from young adult all together, but still...). Nonetheless, John Green is popular with my students, and I enjoyed his collaborative novel, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, so when a fellow teacher suggested test-reading Paper Towns for possible inclusion as summer reading, I was willing to give it a go.

After finishing, I'm feeling somewhat ambivalent. Paper Towns is well-written, with interesting characters, an intriguing mystery, and an excellent depiction of male friendship. In a different mood, I probably would have really enjoyed it. However, I felt rather cynical throughout my reading, so parts that typically wouldn't have bothered me did.

Paper Towns follows Quentin, a high school senior who has also been obsessed with his childhood friend and neighbor, Margo Roth Spielgman, for years. In high school, Margo is popular and effervescent, so Quentin is surprised when she shows up at his bedroom window, late one night, requiring Quentin's help. Margo enlists Quentin on an all-night prank-filled trip around town, but the next day at school, Margo is not to be seen. Margo has a habit of running off, so no one's particularly surprised, but as her absence lengthens, Quentin begins to believe Margo has left behind clues for him to follow and find her. 

As I said, what dragged down the novel most for me were the use of cliches that I see pop up often in young adult literature. These include:
- The cliche of big jocks picking on weaker "nerds" in high school. Can we not move beyond (or at least become more nuanced) in the way we present this stereotype?
- Using a teenager's deep interest in music as a sign that he/she is cool. When I discover a teen character has an extensive music collection (especially if he or she collects records), I just groan.
- Using classic literature as a metaphor for teenage angst. As an English teacher, I suppose I should be happy Green uses Walt Whitman's poetry, but I just couldn't get behind it.

But, these things are unlikely to bother a young adult reader, and there are plenty of good things too. I especially liked the relationship between Quentin and his best friends Ben and Radar, who are supportive and yet also carefully drawn individuals. I did think, at times, Quentin's quest to find Margo was presented too heroically, and Ben and Radar's objections overlooked. Quentin is unhealthily obsessed with Margo, and Margo is all he ever talks about. He's unfair to criticize his friends when they want to do or be interested in something other than Quentin's journey. Nonetheless, I liked the rapport between the friends.

There's a lot of thought in Paper Towns into the question of how well we can know another person and the futility of trying to define anyone but ourselves. The book doesn't come down for or against the traditional (finishing high school, going to college) or the nontraditional (running off before graduation, exploring and drifting), but I like that it doesn't present either as wholly satisfactory.

Many of my students have adored Paper Towns and Green's other books, and though this one didn't come together fully for me, it was still an enjoyable read.


  1. I still haven't read any John Green, but I have his latest, The Fault in Our Stars on my reading roster this month. I hear good things about Green's writing, but I am quite picky about my contemporary YA book choices - we will see how it goes.

    Also: I know what you mean about being in a 'mood' that lessens your enjoyment of a book you might otherwise like. It's to your credit that you recognize it!

  2. I've seen a lot of my students carrying around The Fault in Our Stars, so I'd be interested in seeing what you think of it. I've found I have a much harder time enjoying the contemporary YA my students love than I do the YA fantasy/sci-fi. I imagine I would have loved Paper Towns as a teenager, though.

  3. I love your review! Here's mine: , Have a nice day!