But when the book delivers on expectations, students find themselves facing the void again: What do we read next?
With The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, we’re in luck.
TFIOS is both one of the funniest and also one of the most desperately sad books I’ve ever encountered. Green seems to get something important about adolescent life that too many adults miss or push away. He takes teens seriously, as if their dramas, their romances, adventures, and catastrophic failures were real and worth exploring. Partly because of this, I think, some adults are put off by his breezy style and snappy dialogue. He writes the way many teens talk.
Lucky for us (and the young adults in our lives), Green has been prolific, with four solo and two collaborative novels since 2005. He is also, with brother Hank Green, a wildly popular video blogger. And while TFIOS is justifiably his most widely known book, it is arguably not even his best.
In Paper Towns, he manages to spin a quirky high school graduation and road trip drama together with a sort of detective story into a highly literary exploration of identity and place. He relentlessly probes the ways we relate to (and hide from) each other, our communities, our selves. Amid vivid depictions of uncool parents, spoiled romances, and the depressing social politics of high school, we come across metaphors of windows and mirrors, the internal “strings” that seem to hold us together, explorations of the boundaries of self and others, and various takes on the meanings of “paper towns” as places with no sense of place.
Green’s books are rich with cultural references to ponder or chase down. In Paper Towns we find an extended meditation on Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” as well as a dizzying range of allusions to writers (Dickinson, Melville, Eliot, Plath) and musicians (John Coltrane, The Mountain Goats). Each reference is not merely a name-check, but rather, intricately woven thread in narrator Quentin’s effort to make sense the character Margo Roth Spiegelman and himself, a “way into understanding another,” as his English teacher suggests.
Despite the fact that we don’t encounter her directly in much of the book – her mysterious disappearance is the plot’s engine – we’re left with an indelible character in Margo. And although there are strong echoes of Alaska Young, the beautiful, enigmatic and troubled girl at the center of Green’s Printz award-winning first novel, Looking for Alaska, Margo stands out, in part as an absence.
“All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm,” she says to Quentin early in the story as they look out over suburban Orlando. “All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too.”
Yet Quentin poignantly and powerfully discovers only near the end of the novel that all along he has known very little about her. She lives next door and he has known her since young childhood, but she is not really the person he’d ever imagined her to be. She is “this girl who was an idea that I loved.”
Quentin’s realization about his relationship to Margo and the life choice it prompts him to make are surprisingly ordinary and yet manage to be cathartic. This, for me, is what sticks long after plot specifics are lost to the muddle of memory.
As in many YA novels, there is a fair amount coarse language and a bit of sexual innuendo. But none of it is explicit. It’s nothing I would hesitate to recommend to a sharp 8th grader.
Hassett is librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County.
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