Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

a bookclique pick by Ann Klotz

I bought Turtles All the Way Down in an airport last fall, expecting to donate it to my school library. I read it in one gulp on the plane. Since then, I’ve shared the book with three high school students and acquired a second copy that I keep lending to girls who say, “Oooh, can I borrow that?” Green’s depiction of anxiety as a crippling illness over which Aza has no control is hard to read and, for that reason, important. Every teacher should read Aza’s story.

I’ve taught a lot of girls diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but this book made me feel humble. The novel offered an unflinching window into the life of a smart girl living with a debilitating condition. The way in which Aza’s obsessive-compulsive fear of germs overtakes her made me ache. Her excruciating awareness that she’s descending into a spiral she’s powerless to combat reminded me that no one chooses mental illness. Despite thoughtful medical care, a loving mother, a fan-fiction writing best friend and an unlikely beau, Aza suffers. Good support cannot cure her illness or even do much to diminish it.

Aza, Daisy (the best friend), and Davis (the beau), are locked in a plot propelled by the disappearance of Davis’s billionaire father and Daisy’s determination to find the missing man and get the reward. Davis and Aza knew each other vaguely from summer camp in earlier years and re-kindle their friendship, which leads to romance.  While this device felt soap-opera-ish to me, the boy’s desperation at his father’s absence and his concern about his little brother did not.  The awkwardness between Aza and Davis as their relationship deepened also felt authentic, as did the tension between Aza and Daisy, which centered on Daisy’s unflattering inclusion of Aza in her Star Wars fan fiction.

Teenage romance is awkward, and teenage girl friendships are often fraught. Anxiety stinks. I found myself thinking that kids who already confront anxiety may recognize themselves in Aza. Perhaps more importantly, kids and teachers whose experience with anxiety is limited may gain more empathy for what some kids manage every day. I’m glad John Green opened this aperture to ignite more conversations about mental health. Besides, what English teacher can resist a title that works as a metaphor?

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