Occasionally, when I’m trapped in a reading slump, I’ll make a trip to the library and peruse the young adult fiction shelves for an easy read or two. Sometimes I’ll go for the authors I loved as a high schooler, but this time I chose two titles that were heavily talked about in the fall and winter of last year: Nina LaCour’s WE ARE OKAY and John Green’s TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN.
WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour
WE ARE OKAY is young adult at its finest. It’s no surprise that Nina LaCour’s latest won the 2018 Printz Award, a prize that I follow along with closely every year. WE ARE OKAY is a quiet reflection on grief, loss, and, perhaps most prominently, friendship. It’s a slow-paced, character-driven novel, and it was refreshing to read about a character so much like myself. Like me, Marin is a young undergrad and English major at a large upstate New York university, and, like me, she feels alone despite being constantly surrounded by family, friends, and familiar faces. Her feelings of loneliness and isolation are only amplified by the novel’s setting, a desolate, snowy campus during winter break. It’s truly astonishing how brilliant and beautiful LaCour’s writing is. I wish I could make WE ARE OKAY required reading for everyone, or at least every college freshman.
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green
I’ve read all four of Green’s previous novels, starting with the heartbreaking THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, and moving through the others rapidly: I loved the adventure and mystery of PAPER TOWNS, I feared I didn’t “get” LOOKING FOR ALASKA, and I fell in love the highly underrated AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, which seemed to be everyone’s least favorite but mine. When TURTLES was announced, I rolled my eyes. I knew (or thought I knew) it would follow the same “recipe” as Green’s previous works: the manic pixie dream girl, the angsty teenage boy and his 2-3 equally awkward friends, and some kind of cross-country quest. In the past, I’ve disagreed with Green’s over-conscious prose, his try-hard, too-quotable metaphors, but TURTLES takes a step back from his usual style, and puts forth an honest, searing tale of a teen with anxiety disorder and OCD in a world that’s not all too understanding.
In short, TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN is about mental illness. It expertly captures the angst and anxiety that comes with being not only a teenager, but also a person in the world. TURTLES really illustrates how hard it is to be a teenager struggling with mental health, and how that can affect every area of life, from education to relationships. The book also discusses the role of parents in a kid’s life, specifically the idea that not all parents are adequate, and sometimes the best role models aren’t related to a child by blood. Overall, I enjoyed TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN, and if I had to pick, I’d say it’s a new favorite John Green book.