I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
John Green Tackles Mental Illness in Turtles All the Way Down
Turtles All the Way Down by YA author John Green is not about turtles at all. Instead, the title references the ideas that are at play in this book: mental illness, personal relationships, purpose. It's heavy stuff for a teen audience, but it's nothing they aren't used to dealing with in their real life. Here is my review of Turtles All the Way Down.
“Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.” (Aza, Turtles All the Way Down)
— John Green
Turtles All the Way Down Plot Summary
Aza Holmes is a high school girl who has struggled for years with crippling anxiety and overwhelming germ phobia. Her best friend, Daisy, is a fast-talking, hard working Chuck E. Cheese employee who stands by her despite Aza’s eccentricities.
One day, news breaks that Russell Pickett, the billionaire father of Aza’s childhood acquaintance, Davis Pickett, has gone missing. Daisy persuades Aza to take a canoe down the river behind Aza’s house to Davis’ mansion to reconnect with Davis and try to solve the mystery of Russell’s disappearance which could lead to a large reward for the girls. Over the next few months, Aza and Davis begin dating, the girls fall into the large payday they had hoped for, relationships are tested, and Aza’s compulsions and worries cause her to unravel.
“I was good at being a kid, and so terrible at being whatever I was now.” (Aza, Turtles All the Way Down)
— John Green
Author John Green embraces the age of the Internet and has provided numerous details about his life and his writing career through his YouTube channels and social media accounts. Fans of his should be able to identify numerous Easter eggs throughout this book including his own struggles with OCD, references of his favorite writers (Shakespeare, Salinger, Twain, etc.), the setting in his home state of Indiana, and his love of poems and quotes.
If you were to describe what this book is like to another John Green fan, you could say it’s like a mash up of Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, but that would oversimplify it. There is a missing persons mystery to solve, a young girl struggling with an illness, and a cast of characters who are too smart for their own good, the marks of a typical John Green story. However, mental illness is at its forefront, providing a glimpse of what it’s like to live with a mental illness for those who don’t know and a character to identify with for those who do.
I wouldn’t call myself a huge YA fan, but I keep picking up Green’s books because they deal with universal issues, not just teen problems that adults are usually quick to ignore or even laugh at. Aza has to live with the gnawing thoughts and crazy compulsions that she struggles with day after day.
However, you don’t just see the story from her perspective but from how others see her as well. It creates an awareness that we are all flawed and are affected by the flaws of others.
Aza’s mom sees her as a fragile ornament who is about to break. Daisy sees her as an exhausting, self-centered person who she also can’t live without. Davis sees her as a trusted confidant who has just as many problems as he does, even if they are not the same types of problems. In fact, they live two very separate lives and have very different perspectives.
Davis thinks big. His hobby is astronomy, not to mention he is the son of a billionaire whose entire home can be controlled with the push of a button on his phone. However, he can’t control the fact that his father vanished after being accused of illegal activities.
He also can’t control his younger brother’s sadness over the disappearance, despite their father never being completely present in their lives. Mostly, he can’t control the fact that their entire fortune will go to a prehistoric reptile called a tuatara if and when their father is considered “legally” dead.
Aza has her own past tragedy to deal with, but her worries dwell in the small set of concentrated ideas deep inside. She often contemplates the idea that she isn’t real, that her thoughts are out of her control, even when she can identify them as a crazy thoughts, and that her body is full of microorganisms that could attack her at any time which worries her so much that she is willing to take dangerous measures to counter these attacks.
These thoughts are made worse when Davis gives Aza $100,000 to keep quiet about any information she knows about his father’s disappearance. She splits this reward with Daisy and then immediately regrets taking due to the rift it causes in her friendship with Daisy.
“Every loss is unprecedented. You can’t know someone else’s hurt, not really – just like touching someone else’s body isn’t the same as having someone else’s body.” (Aza, Turtles All the Way Down)
— John Green
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Aza’s story wraps up with an imperfect yet satisfying ending. Things are never the same after events unfold, and Aza’s first-person narration becomes aware that her future will be full of ups and downs, but she will keep fighting herself in order to move forward.
This is not a grand adventure, though it is unique. However, it never takes away from the fact that these are normal teenagers who do homework, hang out at Applebees, text, and watch movies together when they’re not in school. These mundane activities ground them in a reality that is punctured by some amazing situations and relatable internal struggles.
It's been a long time since I read a book in less than a week, but I made time for this one. It deals with heavy subject matter without being too heavy on its characters. There's plenty of humor and bright spots injected throughout to keep the story or its characters from getting too depressing.
It balances its shifting tones well and keeps the story compelling. These are the kinds of stories I like, ones that are grounded in reality with well-developed characters that have to make a journey, even if most of that journey takes place inside of their own heads.
Buy a copy of Turtles All the Way Down here!
“‘It’s so weird, to know you’re crazy and not be able to do anything about it, you know? It’s not like you believe yourself to be normal. You know there is a problem. But you can’t figure a way through to fixing it. Because you can’t be sure, you know?’” (Aza, Turtles All the Way Down)
— John Green
John Green Reads the First Chapter of his Book
Dina AH from United States on May 29, 2018:
It always makes me happy to see someone handling John Green's work with sensitivity. Maybe it's because, like him and Aza, I have OCD. Turtles All the Way Down felt like the most real and honest work of his thus far.
I do think he sheds a bit more than usual in this story. The loops and cycles that Aza experiences felt a little too real (at least, very close to my own experiences). Daisy and Aza's tension reflected struggles within my own life and with friends. So, maybe this is why the book meant so much.
Like you said, I found it a relief that the ending is open and vague, because life is hardly ever episodic with nice bows wrapping up the story. Also: the Missy Elliot reference in the story also made me laugh.
Brianna W from East Coast on January 02, 2018:
Interesting review and I'm glad I found this. I have been thinking about grabbing this book after reading his previous. Very informative!
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 20, 2017:
Interesting article. You may be interested in the following: