YA Hits: “Turtles All the Way Down” + “Everything, Everything”

I don’t read much YA, which is kind of ironic. Let me explain why.

I was a voracious reader as a kid, but once I’d exhausted our school’s tiny library, I felt in my young teenage mind that I’d more or less “conquered” reading, so I moved on to other things: sports, video games, learning to drive, etc. Then college came & went, followed by film school, & both of these left me with little desire to spend any more time with books than I already had to. But then one day, I spotted a book that grabbed hold of my attention & wouldn’t let go.

It was a YA book: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it in the book section at Target, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Within a few days, I returned to get it. The day after, I returned for Catching Fire, & the day after that, I returned for Mockingjay.

The books have their problems, of course, & I don’t even like the second two in the series (that’s a discussion for another time), but this series was the one that hooked me, that reminded me of all the reasons I loved to read. They left me wanting more, which started me down the path towards this blog. And for that reason, I’ll always have a soft spot for The Hunger Games.

It’s true that I don’t read much YA now, but as part of my 2018 Reading Resolution to expand my book horizons, this week I picked two YA mega hits to be the #1 & #2 entries on my clean slate reading challenge.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green tells the story of 16 year-old Aza, who does her best in school & in social situations with her bestie Daisy & at home with her worrier of a mom. But despite outward appearances, Aza is trapped in her own head, where self-destructive thought spirals (when one negative thought leads to another which leads to another, etc.) make every day a battle.

The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.

I was inspired to read this book when the Misfit Book Club did a read-along of it this past December (seriously, check them out on iTunes; they’re awesome). Plus this was the highly anticipated new release from author John Green (certified YA rock star), whose books I’d never read. I figured it was the perfect time.

book cover, turtles all the way down by john green

The cover design represents Aza’s thought spirals.

Turtles All the Way Down is largely inspired by Green’s own lifelong battle with mental illness, & really, that’s the main reason why people should read this book. As strange as it might sound, Green’s depictions of Aza’s stream-of-consciousness descents into her illness are the highlights of this book. There is also a story with a beginning, middle, & end to give the mental illness sections something to hang onto, but the plot is weak & inconsequential.

I didn’t mind Daisy’s excessive chattering (as many readers have), but I never figured out why she & Aza were friends. To me, they didn’t really seem that fond of each other. There’s also a side-plot involving a missing billionaire & his son as a love interest & some hush money, which seems awfully random when it happens early in the story, but then it hardly comes up again afterwards. I’m not particularly sure why Green even included it at all. But again, it’s all inconsequential because it’s not the real story. It’s just background noise.

I myself am fortunate to not struggle with mental illness, but I’ve had people in my life that have, and so for years & years, I’ve longed for a way to understand it. What is it like? Why does it happen? Why is it so powerful that it takes them away from me?

I realize that I will probably never fully get the answers I seek, but Turtles All the Way Down has presented me with the best explanation that I’ve found so far. Green writes Aza’s struggles in a way that is compelling & understandable & even logical. I absolutely get why she does the things she does, & even though it’s just a fictional depiction, it gives me a foundation with which I can hope to understand real world mental illness in the future.

Did I love this book? No. Did I find it fascinating & unforgettable & am I grateful to have read it? Absolutely yes.

book cover, everything everything by nicola yoon

The next YA mega hit I read is Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Eighteen year-old Madeline suffers from SCID, a rare disease characterized by an absent immune system. She lives an isolated life inside her house where her only interactions are with her mom, her nurse Carla, & people online. She hasn’t been outside since she was a baby. But when a new family moves in next door, bringing teenage boy Olly with them, will Maddy’s loneliness drive her from her bubble despite the consequences?

Everything, Everything is a drama/romance for teens, so I am most assuredly not in its target audience. The story was…fine, I think. I never fully bought into Maddy & Olly’s romance; they basically fall in love at first sight, but it seemed a bit forced to me. Also they spend a lot of time early on having conversations via instant messaging, so large sections are printed in IM format, which I found cumbersome to read.

On the plus side, whereas most YA protagonists seem to be the moody, angsty type (sometimes for good reasons, but just as often for no reason at all), Maddy is a breath of fresh air. Even though she has every reason in the world to be unhappy, she remains upbeat & optimistic, grateful for the things she can do. This was a crucial factor in keeping me engaged in a book that otherwise would’ve contained very little for me.

Just because you can’t experience everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience anything.

Overall I would’ve simply written this book off as a harmless YA romance, but I do have one major problem with it: the ending. So I’m going to quickly say it, & if you don’t want to know, just scroll past it. Okay, ready?

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As it turns out in the end, Maddy isn’t actually sick. Her mom suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy & has basically been keeping her daughter prisoner. So it makes Maddy’s decision to sign up for a credit card she has no hope of ever paying for & using it to run away with the boy she just met seem like the right thing to do. I could be wrong, but is that maybe not the best message to give to teens itching to get out from under their parents’ thumbs?

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Okay, sorry about that! Back to your regularly scheduled blog post!

So what is my final verdict? If you love YA books, you’ve probably already read both of these & love them fiercely. If you’re not a YA diehard & are considering reading one of them, go with Turtles All the Way Down.

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