Like so many of my fellow contemporary YA readers, our gateway book into the world was a John Green one. I discovered his books after getting sucked into the YouTube universe in 2009, after accidentally stumbling on a Vlogbrothers video when I was meant to be studying for a grad school exam. Nothing serves procrastination better than hundreds of sharp, funny, short videos about the world of nerds. I was hooked and, ultimately intrigued about John Green’s writing after feeling like I had learned a significant amount about John Green the YouTube person.
I started with Looking for Alaska (loved it) and An Abundance of Katherines (did not love it), and found my world expanding by virtue of these philosophical, warm ponderings on life and relationship and personhood. His work is thought-provoking and funny and so utterly gnarled.
It was through first seeing John Green The Person, then reading his books that made me realize that authors are people. People write books. I had never let myself dream of actually pursuing writing until he made himself seem so completely accessible and relatable and fallable. No writer who starts out is necessarily SOMEONE. You become someone by virtue of pursing that which you love. It was a mind-blowing revelation.
I watched his star rise as Papertowns came out. Then the juggernaut of emotional complexity and deeply felt first love that was The Fault In Our Stars exploded on the YA scene. The Fault in Our Stars gave John Green his Moment. He could have sailed on that high sea for years without writing another book as important and gutting. Or the next book could have followed a similar formula, guaranteeing commercial success.
Whatever book that was going to follow The Fault in Our Stars was poised for mass hysteria and bestseller status, based on the capital he had gained creating such a beautiful work. Conversely, it is that very hype, that level of expectation that seemed to have shaped what Turtles All The Way Down actually became. It is Green’s way of asserting, in no uncertain terms, that he writes for himself.
All writers seek to understand themselves or their experiences in one way or another, through their writing. As readers, we seek to better understand them, as well as ourselves, by reading their work. It’s the glorious give and take of the reader-writer relationship.
Turtles All The Way Down is a far more intimate turn in this relationship than any of his other novels. It is a manifesto on the unrelenting experience of being oneself. An examination that seems personally tied to Green’s experience, who has shared about his own OCD on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel.
What Turtles achieves, more assuredly than any of his books before, is the vital importance of Green’s voice in the YA world. Some have argued that his books have been given more intellectual weight and accolades because we are far more likely to take something, say the YA genre, more seriously when a white cis gendered male says we should. It seems that many do believe that Green’s philosophical perspectives and precocious characters lend a greater significance and heft to the YA genre overall, a genre most widely known as written by women. “Well, if this guy says it matters, now we’ll listen,” as opposed to listening to all the women whose work is breathtaking, deeply felt, and beautifully written in its own right (see: Rainbow Rowell, Suzanne Collins, Nnedi Okorafor, Leigh Bardugo, E. Lockhart, Marie Lu, Becky Albertalli, the list goes on and on).
The ignorant perspective seems to be that when women, especially women of color, write YA it is “fluff” or, simply, not as serious, intelligent, or as capital-i Important. I have seen this in reviews and critiques since reading YA, the subtle and not-so-subtle undermining of these writers that ultimately perpetuates this perspective.
I do also think that it is shifting. The Hate U Give, a YA novel about police brutality written by first time author Angie Thomas (that you should really read if you haven’t), rode fast and strong at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for 33 straight weeks. Green’s Turtles was the first to nab the top spot from the new writer. In 33 weeks! It took a well-known, New York Times bestselling author with five published novels, and two movies based on those novels, to dethrone THUG. That is an exceptional shift. I hope the trend continues.
At this point, these criticisms of Green seem unfair and outdated. Turtles, in it’s dizzying, coiled honesty, underscores the importance of Green’s voice in YA. His books contribute significantly to the genre. Not because the plots are always perfect, or the dialogue realistic (they’re not and it’s not), but because his rumination on what it means to be a person at the most formative time of one’s life seeks to undo and unravel the deepest falsehoods we hold about ourselves. Because he sheds light on ugly. And gives voice to pain. And tries again, and again, to send out messages of raw truth, real hope, and grounded intellectualism. TAtWD is his most mature and sophisticated novel to date.
Turtles is a tough, remarkable read. Sixteen-year-old Aza takes us on a journey through first love and OCD. It is incessant in its depiction of obsessions and compulsions associated with OCD. So much so, I had to take breaks while reading due to my own agitation and anxiety. It is not a page-turner. The plot is bizarre, and often feels beside the point when juxtaposed with the screaming maw of Aza’s anxiety and grief. Much of it feels like filler to get back to Aza. This book could have just been called Aza (though that would have been quite the departure from the Green anthology of long and metaphoric titles).
Aza is this book. We spend a majority of the time inside of her mind, utterly immersed in her thoughts, anxieties, and inner workings. Most distinctly, Aza is not there for you. You are there to bear her witness, and feel her journey, but she is not your new book best friend. This is a subtle and exquisite move on Green’s part. There is so much to Aza, yet we are left knowing little about her beyond her mind.
This seems to be exactly Green’s point. By showing swaths of thought spirals, and very little of her life and personality, we realize that her mental illness and herself are one and the same. They are not to be teased apart, not by us as readers, nor by the author himself, because that is not how it is in life. All the other parts of her personality, that she’s smart, sarcastic, kind, are dimmed by the shadow of her illness when it is running its most rampant. This makes her sound tragic, which is kind of the point. There is no glorification of OCD here. This is not a novel that paints mental illness as quirky and cute. It calls out mental illness for what it is: constant, pulsing, inextricable.
In Turtles All The Way Down, Green has created a deeply moving and painful mirror in which to examine who we are when we are ill, what it means to be loved through it, and how we fight like to hell to know ourselves, all the way down.
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