Alright you guys, I’m outing myself as a nerdfighter here, a fan of the amazing vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I just wanted to put that out there, and clarify that their catchphrase, DFTBA means Don’t Forget To Be Awesome, in case anyone mistakenly thought I joined a gang or was cursing you out. It’s a nice phrase. People do need to remember that they can and should be awesome. This is a book blog though, and as such I’ll be focusing not on the amazing online community the Green brothers have cultivated, but the thing that first turned me onto this mess in the first place, John Green’s books.
Perhaps you’ve heard of John Green by now with his book The Fault in Our Stars hitting the bestselling big time and movie-land. I couldn’t count on that when I first started to read him, (yup, don’t mind me, just fishing for hipster cred. On with the review.) After reading Looking for Alaska, I wanted to eat up every other book he’d come out with up to that point, which at that point included An Abundance of Katherines, and the imminent promise of Paper Towns. I was quite happy when that promise was finally fulfilled, and found myself fully engrossed in the saga of Margo Roth Spiegelman. With the Paper Towns movie due to come out this June, I figure I’ll go over my experience reading that book, which was certainly a rich one.
I remember reading through the Papertowns book excitedly for a high school book club and getting ready to discuss how marvelous John Green was with whatever book nerds decided to stay after school and discuss the librarian’s latest pick. My heart was nearly broken when a boy I may have had a faint crush on criticized it by mentioning that just like in every single one of John Green’s books, the whole story centered around a teen boy trying to find the puberty-equivalent of enlightenment, by chasing a girl. This was more or less true of each of John’s novel until he came out with The Fault in Our Stars, which had female protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster focus on the life-and-death struggle young cancer patients go through. I’ll be fair and admit I’d noticed that girl-chasing trend, especially by Papertowns, and that I had worried for that Green did have some sad and sordid sort of high school love life that left his psyche scarred. Ironically, though, Papertowns is all about the peril of idolizing other people, of looking to them for answers they may or may not have. In fact, considering The Fault in Our Stars was the next novel Green wrote, you could sort of view the novels as a progression towards fully realizing both male and female souls own themselves in a very private, unknowable way, and he doesn’t need to feel so downtrodden over that one high school girlfriend he failed to woo.
I feel that Papertowns has an even greater chance at success than the Fault in Our Stars did. I recall people’s main complaint about the movie being it’s high level of cry-baiting. Emotionallly manipulative, I believe some people who get paid to come up with better terms than I can for movie reviews. Those cry babies can rest easy though, because Papertowns is not about a bunch of terminally ill teenagers. It certainly still goes after some deep themes.
That was the immediate draw for me to John Green. He reached further with his books and the themes therein than most Young Adult books I read. I appreciated feeling like an author was not afraid to discuss issues like the nature of knowledge, the great labyrinth of life, and death with teens on a their level. Green is frighteningly good at capturing the way younger people act, and injecting them with his exponential sense of humor. What’s more, he manages to cover issues that are hugely important for teens to grapple with as they go through the awkward high school years. Papertowns might possibly be one of the best examples of this.
To explain the themes without giving too much away, the title Papertowns refers to a map making companies used to check for copyright infringement. Mapmakers would come up with a fake town name and place it somewhere on their map where no actual town existed, thus ensuring that if they saw any other map with the same town, they’d know they’d been robbed. Green mentions the real world example of Agloe, New York, which was fake until enough confused map users decided to just go and build a town where the map said there was one, thus thwarting the copyright scheme but making making many confused travelers feel better. There you go, creating a fiction to fulfill a need you had, regardless of the inherent dangers and consequences. To get only a little more specific, Margo Roth Spiegelman is a wild girl loved and mooned after by many but when she disappears her friends are forced to reckon with how little they truly knew her. Protaganist Q,or Quentin, becomes determined to unravel the enigmatic Margo’s disappearance, and hopefully the girl herself as well.
Remembering to view people as their own separate selves, relatively unknowable to you, is an important skill that humans are not born with. While teens are notoriously self-involved, they certainly have greater awareness than prepubescent kids, and thus a greater chance to grasp the notion of other people being their own entities not connected to your own idea of them. Indeed, doesn’t that classic teen cry of “No one understands me!” show teens starting to recognize this disconnect in perhaps the smallest and most angst-ridden of ways? I remember being truly fascinated by the idea when I read the book in my mid-high school stretch. John Green’s books were an invaluable source of entertainment, solace, and advice when I was going my teenage years. I hope that he continues to write books that will give kids the same sort of delightfully funny but honest, earnest look at young people exploring what it means to live with and love other people.