Turtles All the Way Down: A Review (of sorts)

John Green has rightfully and justly earned himself the respect and favor of readers and critics alike.  Since 2005 with his publication of his Printz-award-winning debut novel, Looking for Alaska, Green has cemented himself as, not only the voice of adolescents and young adults, but as the contemporary JD Salinger,  modernizing a genre of books that are more relative to the targeted audience than the standard stock.

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John Green from Time magazine

Another surprising aspect of Green’s craft is his appeal to an older generation.  Granted, I am in the education field and like to stay abreast with what is current and popular with teens, but I know a lot of other people who are familiar with and enjoy reading his books. Of course, he’s not appealing to all.  Some of my adult friends find his work exhausting and unrealistic.  Sure, there is some vocabulary in his dialogue that I don’t know if any 16-year-old I’ve ever taught knows the meaning of, but hey, if kids are reading it, they are exposing themselves to some good vocab, so…#winning.

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The book you should be reading right now

With that said, I just finished his latest novel (literally, like 15 minutes ago), Turtles All the Way Down, and I’m feeling very unsettled, which I suspect, is how Green wants the reader to feel.  Turtles deals with the mental illness of a teenage girl, Aza, who has OCD.   Green focuses more on the mental rather than the behavioral aspect of Aza’s illness.

It was very hard for me to read, I think, because at first I was still not truly understanding the severity of the illness.  Unlike, say, The Fault in Our Stars, where I felt such heartbreak and sadness for a week after finishing the book because cancer isn’t something you can control–it just happens–my reaction to TFiOS was typical and expected.  With, Turtles, I found myself saying things like, “Just stop it, Aza” “Don’t do that, Aza,” “WHY ISN’T SHE STOPPING HERSELF?” and “Oh my gosh, did she seriously just do that!?”

As if she could control it.

Here is something that I’ve reminded myself about while reading Turtles: mental illness is and is not like cancer.

Is like cancer:

  • It can worsen without treatment.
  • It is invasive.
  • It is debilitating.
  • The person living with it cannot control it.
  • There is treatment but no cure.
  • It affects the person with it and everyone close to that person.
  • It can be terminal.

Is not like cancer:

  • Oh, wait.  I got nothing.

It wasn’t until I recently dealt with a loved one going through major and serious depression that I started educating myself more about mental illness.  I may not have handled this personal issue well at first because mental illness is not understood and is stigmatized (unjustly), and those thoughts were still in the back of my mind.  Just be happy. Think happy thoughts.  Choose joy.  But my loved one could not just be happy and couldn’t find the joy to choose.

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Green’s inspiration for a visual representation of Aza’s “though spirals”

People living with mental illness (depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) need to be understood and shouldn’t feel that they are having to live through it alone.  There should be no blame involved.  As if the person with the mental illness wants to have these thoughts or behaviors.  As if a person with cancer wants to have the cancer.

We need to start trying to do a better job understanding mental illness.

I thank John Green for writing a book with a character that feels real and deserves our sympathy so that we can better understand these illnesses and start a positive conversation about them.

In a nutshell: if you’re somewhat empathetic, this is not an easy read, but it’s totally worthy of your uncomfort.  If you’re not empathetic, read it anyway, and try–just for a moment–to think what it’s like to be someone else.

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