Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

turtles all the way down cover

Green, John. Turtles All The Way Down. Dutton Books, 2017.

To say I am a fan of John Green would be a tremendous understatement. Not only are his books fantastic and popular with my students and co-workers, his Crash Course videos make frequent appearances in my instruction. I am a proud Nerdfigher and have attended two conferences spearheaded by the Green Brothers—VidCon and NerdCon Stories. There’s a Nerdfighter flag draped across the wall of my classroom, a Nerdfighter enamel pin affixed to my tote bag. I like to hear John’s views on everything from politics and religion to whether pineapple belongs on pizza.

So, like other YA fans, I was aflutter with excitement when John announced his forthcoming novel, Turtles All The Way Down. I pre-ordered an autographed copy and waited with bated breath.

I can happily report that Turtles All The Way Down was certainly worth the wait.

Aza Holmes lives with debilitating anxiety, worrying endlessly about bacteria and contagious diseases. It’s a fear that has resulted in a variety of rituals—Aza habitually presses her thumbnail into her middle finger, creating a callus that she must continually douse with hand sanitizer and rebandage. Thoughts of microbes and fatal bacteria often cause her thoughts to spiral, and she’s rarely mentally present when spending time with her mom or best friend, Daisy.

It is during one of these obsessive thought spirals that Aza hears about the disappearance of Russell Pickett, a billionaire on the lam. Russell’s son, Davis, was one of Aza’s childhood friends. After some brash encouragement from Daisy, Aza seeks out Davis, and the two reconnect. As Aza and Daisy piece together scant clues from Russell’s disappearance, Aza struggles with her feelings for Davis and the constant, nagging presence of her phobias. Will she learn to regularly take her medication? Will her mental illness interfere with her burgeoning relationship? Will anyone uncover Russell Pickett’s location?

I’d sorely missed John Green’s writing style, and starting Turtles All The Way Down was a breath of fresh air. The language is smart, the characters varied and complicated. There were great moments of humor and the painful scenes were genuine and raw. John Green does a fantastic job writing Aza’s obsessive thoughts, allowing the text to tighten on the reader in the same way that Aza’s fears close around her. Aza’s relationships—both romantic and platonic—are refreshingly real. There are no neat happily-ever-afters, making this an accurate depiction of mental illness.

There is little to dislike in Green’s newest novel. The number of conflicts and plot points can almost feel overwhelming, but this perhaps speaks to Aza’s mental state.

Like all of Green’s novels, Turtles All The Way Down will be an essential addition to a high school classroom library. Students who are dealing with anxiety or loss will find it especially relatable. Overall, Turtles All The Way Down is a fantastic read from an author who contributes a great deal to teenagers, educators, and the world at large. What’s not to love?

Book Review: The Future of Us

the future of us

Asher, Jay, and Carolyn Mackler. The Future of Us. Simon & Schuster Books, 2011.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but there are a few items I will purchase somewhat impulsively: donuts, office supplies, and gently used bargain books. I especially enjoy stocking up on cheap YA paperbacks before school starts, trying to make my shelves look as full and varied as possible.

It’s easy, then, to forget individual purchases. I was perusing my shelves before summer break and discovered a copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us. As Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has become a Netflix sensation and a popular read among my students, I was surprised that I never tackled The Future of Us. Recently, I decided to remedy that.

In the time of dial-up internet and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, Josh and Emma are neighbors and best friends. The relationship is on the cusp of blossoming into something more, but frightened Emma puts an immediate stop to it. Amid the awkwardness that follows, Josh brings Emma a copy of AOL to install on her new computer. As Emma gets to work creating her first e-mail address and setting up instant messenger, she discovers an interesting website. Called Facebook, the website contains photos and strange, stream-of-consciousness statements from a woman in her mid-thirties. Emma is startled to discover that the woman is her in the future, seemingly unhappily married to a stranger.

Puzzled and frightened of a computer virus, Emma invites Josh over to examine Facebook. They find an account for Josh as well, and are in shock as he seems to be married to one of the most attractive and popular girls in school. While Josh is desperate for his future to pan out just as Facebook says it will, Emma is determined to change the present, creating ripple effects that will give her the happy life she wants. How will Emma’s actions impact both their futures? Will Josh work up the courage to speak to his future wife? And will Josh and Emma ever resolve their feelings for one another?

Older readers will smile at the bits of nostalgia found in Asher and Mackler’s novel: the necessity of logging off the internet when another household member needs to use the phone, and the use of Walkmans, cassette tapes, pagers, and pay phones. The premise, too, is intriguing. Who could resist catching a glimpse of their future, especially if they knew they could change it?

Although I was certainly drawn in to The Future of Us, I found Josh and Emma’s relationship problematic. Emma spurned Josh’s affections until other girls began to find him interesting, making Emma something of an unsympathetic character. It would be difficult, too, to maintain the timeliness and relevancy of the book. Although students are still familiar with and use Facebook, social media is constantly changing and evolving.

The idea of the butterfly effect—found in time travel fiction and related to the decisions human beings make every day—has been a topic of conversation in my classroom this year. I could see excerpts from this novel strengthening my students’ understanding of the concept and encouraging them to think more seriously about the many ways their present impacts their future.

Book Review: Wonder Woman: Warbringer

wonder woman cover

Bardugo, Leigh. Wonder Woman: Warbringer. New York, Random House, 2017.

After seeing the Wonder Woman movie in theaters, I immediately returned home and posted my thoughts to Facebook: “Wow. We do not deserve Wonder Woman.”

I was blown away by Gal Gadot’s flawless performance and Wonder Woman’s penchant for peace. I was excited for the little girls who saw the movie wearing capes and carrying their own lassos of truth. And, most importantly, I was energized by the positive press surrounding an action movie with a female lead.

I was powerless, then, to Leigh Bardugo’s newest release: a YA Wonder Woman novelization.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer follows teenaged Diana, who is considered a runt and weakling among the Amazons on her home island of Themyscira. The daughter of the queen Hippolyta, Diana sees a foot race as an opportunity to prove herself and make her mother proud. After the race begins, however, Diana hears unnerving screams. A ship has wrecked just outside the wards of mystical Themyscira, and a young girl—the ship’s sole survivor—is quickly drowning in the choppy water. Diana decides to forfeit the race and bring the girl, Alia, to safety, even though Amazons and mortals are forbidden to mix.

Alia’s presence has an adverse effect on the island—earthquakes rattle Themyscira, and Diana’s best friend becomes violently ill. Desperate and guilty, Diana seeks the guidance of Themyscira’s Oracle. The Oracle says that Alia is a “Warbringer”—the latest descendent in a long line of women who bring strife and warfare to the mortal world. The Oracle advises Diana to let Alia die, but brave Diana can’t bear the thought of Alia’s suffering. She makes the decision, then, to return Alia to the world of man. Will Diana ever return to Themyscira? Will she be shunned in the modern world? Will Alia continue to cause conflict and chaos with her mere presence?

Fans of the movie will be just as enraptured with Bardugo’s novel. Diana’s super strength and endurance, literal way of speaking, and desire to do what is right are all present in the text. Alia, too, is an intriguing character. Her affliction and backstory are tragic, and, though she lacks Diana’s Amazonian attributes, she is, in many ways, just as brave as the burgeoning Wonder Woman.

There is a wide cast of characters in Wonder Woman: Warbringer: Alia’s brother Jason, best friend Nim, Jason’s friend Theo, Diana’s mother Hippolyta, adversary Tek, best friend Maeve, etc. Keeping up with their many personalities, backstories, and motivations was something of a juggling act.

As someone who teaches The Odyssey and sometimes struggles to drive home the many Greek gods and goddesses present in the text, this book presents a unique opportunity. Students could read excerpts from Wonder Woman: Warbringer and examine the ways the gods influence Diana’s story compared to the story of Odysseus. No matter how you use it, Bardugo’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. Diana’s dedication to truth and righteousness makes her a hero worth emulating.