Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Quality of Prose: 4/5

Quality of Story: 3.5/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 4 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

When her childhood friend Davis Puckett’s billionaire father goes missing while being investigated for fraud, Aza Holmes reconnects with Davis, attempts to find his father, and struggles with her own ever-growing anxiety disorder.

My Favorite Quote

“Your now is not your forever.”

“You’re both the fire and the water that extinguishes it. You’re the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.”


What I Loved About It

All the typical John Green things.

As per usual, his prose is poignant and full of a depth many young adult novels unfortunately lack. (I’ve mentioned before on this blog Green’s quotable quotes–the sentences he writes that cut you right to the heart, his ability to put a feeling or experience you’ve had but were never able to dictate into words in the most beautiful and quotable way possible. The same is certainly true in this book.)

Green is able to chronicle his protagonist’s descent into dark “thought spirals” in a way that is–let’s be real–true perfection. (SPOILER ALERT) There are a couple pages towards the end of the book where the protagonist is fighting against her anxiety-induced need to drink hand sanitizer (to ward off the infection she is sure is festering in her stomach) that just SLAYED me. These pages in particular are incredibly well-written and a great but heartbreaking depiction of anxiety, depression, and mental health problems.

While I loved these things about the book (and all John Green books tbh), there are things about John Green books that always bother me. His depictions of many teen issues like identity, rites of passage, first love, family issues, pain, grief, and mental health are expertly written and extremely realistic, but the actual teenaged characters he creates are not so much.

His characters are always super smart and deep, philosophizing about life and death and the universe, quoting long-dead authors and poets and philosophers. And it’d be okay if one character in each of his books is a little philosophizing genius who has the maturity and literary knowledge of a college senior co-majoring in literature, history, biology, and philosophy and who maybe introduces the other characters to these things. But every single character in every one of his books is that way. The main characters. The love interests. The best friends. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

I spend all day every day with over a hundred teenagers, and sure, a few of them are extremely well-versed on literature, but none (NONE!) can quote Joyce or Morrison or The Tempest. I guess you could say reading his books could make teens aspire to be as deep or as knowledgable about pop culture and literary references as Davis or Aza are, but for me every time I read a John Green book, the characters just come across as glaringly fake. (The only exception to this for me was in Looking for Alaska. Alaska and Pudge’s knowledge felt organic and believable to me, a stark contrast to that of Hazel Grace’s of The Fault in Our Stars or Aza’s of Turtles All the Way Down.

I also couldn’t really buy into the romance between Aza and Davis in this one. Maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe that’s the point he’s making about Aza’s mental health–that it’s keeping her from experiencing a normal first love experience. I can respect that, but I also didn’t really care about the mystery of Davis’ dad’s disappearance. The only plot points in the story that I cared at all about were those that were associated with Aza’s mental health. While I found The Fault in Our Stars to be extremely overrated, I still cared about the overall plot and characters of the story. And in Looking for Alaska (Green’s one and only masterpiece in my opinion), I had a deep and visceral connection to the plot and characters. The same just can’t be said for this one. I just did not care nearly as much about any of it.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Regardless of its faults, the novel is a great and gut-wrenching depiction of anxiety. And this is something many of my students could really use. A lot of my students struggle with anxiety themselves, and many of the ones that don’t could definitely benefit from living in someone’s shoes who does have anxiety. I’m always trying to find ways to teach them empathy, but it’s hard (understatement of the century). This book is a way to get kids to realize that they’re not alone and to allow them a chance to view life from someone else’s perspective.

Just like any other John Green book, Turtles All the Way Down also introduces students to a lot of authors and quotes they otherwise would not be introduced to (regardless of the unrealistic nature of the quotes in the book) and that’s always a good thing.