I finished John Green’s Paper Towns this past week (I know, it’s an older John Green and something I should’ve read by now). I enjoyed it and found it remarkable in the genre of young adult literature for the way it deconstructs one of the popular assumptions about this genre. Many YA lit scholars (and I’ve shared this with my own students) suggest that one of the defining characteristics of YA lit is its focus on plot and action, the way it often strips away “fluff” in service to a story.
This is not what I found in Paper Towns, although it has a strong and engaging plot that tracks our protagonist (Quentin) as he seeks to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his neighbor (and romantic interest) Margo Roth Spiegleman. But woven expertly and integrally into this storyline is a serious meditation on what it means to be an individual and how we perceive (and define) the people we interact with. Most surprisingly, Green engages these ideas through a serious exploration of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a title that is most assuredly not YA lit (and probably isn’t appreciated by many teens who might–against their will, sadly–read the poem).