YA Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

You will go to the paper towns and you will never come back.

John Green. Paper Towns. New York City: Dutton Books, 2008.

“Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one,” (8).

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were little, growing up together in a subdivision in Orlando, Florida. By the time they enter high school, things between Q and Margo have changed dramatically; she has become “that girl”—the popular one, who sets the trends, who everyone wants to be, and around whom dozens of incredibly unbelievable stories are centered—unlike Q and his group of decidedly-unpopular friends. Q and Margo are no longer the friends they used to be, and, in Q’s point of view, Margo has changed. In reality, they have both changed. Everything has changed.

“Basically,” she said, “this is going to be the best night of your life.” (30)

One night, Margo shows up at Q’s window to take him on a series of wild adventures. Q is reluctant at first, but finally agrees, after some convincing, to embark on this journey with Margo. This is when Q begins to learn who Margo Roth Spiegelman really is. Their adventure together brings them both to the same level, which has not been true since they were children. This gives Q the idea that perhaps he has a chance with her, after all; however, he returns to school the next day to find that Margo is gone, and that she has left a series of seemingly-indecipherable clues behind. These clues were not meant for just for anybody; all the clues were directed towards Q. He begins to follow this trail in hopes that it will lead him to Margo, and with every new clue, he begins to realize that Margo Roth Spiegelman may not be the girl he thought she was.

“You see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be plastic. It’s a paper town.” (57)

The idea of a paper town is something new to Q, but it is this very idea of paper towns that would begin Q’s search for Margo. This “clue” left Q with many questions: What is a paper town, and what does it mean to Margo? These are the questions Q would have answers if he ever wants to find Margo, and these are the questions that inspire Q’s quest to find her. During Q’s journey, he learns much more about life, friends, family, and memories than his past 18 years of life could ever have taught him.

The town was paper, but the memories were not.” (227)

Read Paper Towns to see what Q finds!

Recommendations for Teachers

Paper Towns is easy reading and a fun mystery for all ages, but much of it rings most true with high-school-aged teens. After all, that’s who it’s about! Getting kids to talk about the books they are reading and reflecting productively can be difficult, however–even when they like the book. Here are some suggestions for teachers to use in integrating activities and writing, and promoting discussion on the book and some of the themes in it:

  • Characters: One interesting thing about the vibrant characters in Paper Towns is that they are all so multi-faceted. Students can pick any two characters from the novel and to write about how they are similar and how they are different.
  • Identifying with characters: “You’re you,” Radar says to Quentin at one point in the book. Who are you? Is there a character in the book that you, as a reader, can best identify with? As a follow-up, try having a character assigned, or picking a character with whom you might not think you would have something in common with. It may be quite a lot more than you think by the time you finish the book.
  • Building a mystery: Ever done it? Now’s your chance. Start with an ending point – the way Margo did – and build up to it. Think of what clues you might be able to drop for people to find and follow you to where you’ll wind up, and how they might follow them? Think about people you know as characters – how might these clues be read?
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol?: Back to the characters of the story, now. Do you feel that this story reflects teenage life pretty accurately? Crazy drinking parties, allusions to drugs, and depression? Is everybody really ‘doing it’?
  • Genre: What is genre? What genre would you feel Paper Towns best fits into? Just fiction? What about mystery? Could it be fantasy? Discuss some elements of these different genres and discuss how the book might fit into one of these genres. How do you or students feel about labeling such a multi-faceted book as any one of these things?
  • Get into reading: Maybe Paper Towns is the first book that a student has read all year, or even their first in several years. What are some other books that you as a teacher, or other students, might recommend for those who liked it, or certain parts of it? Talk about what was cool or boring about the book and see what sorts of opinions you get. It could help to pick another book to read for class, or make some suggestions for the school library!
  • Omnictionary: By now, most teenagers with internet access and a curious mind will know about Wikipedia. Having read Paper Towns, they’ll know about John Green’s Wikipedia knock-off, “Omnictionary”, referenced throughout the book. Omnictionary is now a real website that functions similarly. You might encourage students to create pages for anything on Omnictionary, or to write entries about the people and places in Paper Towns.

Paper Towns would be useful in a unit about self-identity and perceptions of others. It is also an exciting mystery and might be best used paired with an Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which like Paper Towns is full of relevant clues and has a link to a piece of literature within the text ( Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in Paper Towns and Roderick Usher’s library in Poe). Paper Towns also involves suicide ideation and the recreating of the self many teenagers are going through as they discover who they are and Fall of the House of Usher contains mental illness and the idea of resurrection. The novel mentions teenage sexual relations, drugs and underage drinking and would probably require a letter home.

Paper Towns is appropriate for 9th to 12th graders although it might be more appropriate for 11th and 12th graders. Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s blog Wild Geese Guide has some very useful discussion questions and the Rhode Island Teen Book Award website lists useful themes. Harper Collins’ Harper Collins’website has some great suggestions for discussion questions and activities Teaching Books.net has a wealth of teacher resources. The above links also lead to a load of great teacher resources, including books talks with the author.

About John Green

John Green was born on August 24, 1997 in Indianapolis, Indiana. During his childhood he lived in many places including Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, and Orlando, Florida, the setting for Paper Towns. In 2000, he graduated from Kenyon College with a double major in English and Religious Studies. He has written five novels to date including Looking for Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), Paper Towns (2008), and a collaborative novel with David Levithan entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). In addition to these works, Green has also published several short stories, as well as reviews for The New York Times’ Book Review, and other writing for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and Chicago’s Public Radio Station WBEZ. His novels have won several awards including the Michael L. Printz award in 2006 for Looking for Alaska, the Edgar Award in 2009, and the Corine Literature Prize in 2010 both for Paper Towns. Many of his novels are being considered for movie adaptations, and most have spent time on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

John Green currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, Sarah, their son, Henry, and his West Highland Terrier, Willy. John currently runs a vlog (video blog) with his brother Hank which was called Brotherhood 2.0 and is now known as Vlogbrothers. He has yet to set a release date for his newest project tenatively titled Everything is Surrounded by Water. More information on John Green can be found on his website.


Author John Green introduces his novel, Paper Towns.

Additional Resources



YA Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Discovering Personal Legends

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

The Alchemist tells the coming-of-age story of a shepherd boy named Santiago who spends his days leading his flock of sheep through the Spanish countryside. We later find that his parents wanted him to become a priest, for which he had even prepared himself. He instead decides that he wants to be a shepherd, and upon telling this to his parents that he wanted instead to become a shepherd, he is given their blessing and buys a flock of sheep, feeling that he has all he has ever wanted in life; soon after his introduction, however, he decides it may be time to marry, and falls in love with a wool merchant’s daughter. When he begins to have recurring dreams of hidden treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt, he cautiously begins to pursue it, coinciding with his dreams of one day traveling to far off lands and having exotic adventures. He hopes that his dream will come true one day, but does not view it as plausible or realistic. He understands that there is a purpose for everything and a reason behind the need to make decisions. Santiago’s strong belief that one should follow their heart is later reinforced throughout the story when he begins to forge his own “Personal Legend”. He values friendship and the prospects of a better life, learning to accept things that may come to pass.

Santiago’s world gets turned upside-down one day when a psychic tells him he must go to the Egyptian Pyramids to find a treasure. An eccentric old man claiming to be a king advises Santiago to take this journey to fulfill his “personal legend,” or destiny. Santiago’s journey to the pyramids spans the next few years, growing spiritually as he travels, learning from mistakes, while learning valuable lessons about the world, survival, and the lives and cultures of other people.

He encounters many characters on his journey towards fulfilling his Personal Legend, like the crystal merchant whom he asks for a job cleaning crystal – whom, at first, pays no mind. Santiago cleans the crystal anyway, asking only to be fed – an obligation the merchant fulfills and explains that it is one of five obligations of the Koran given to his people by the Prophet. The others are to believe in one God, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and to visit the holy city of Mecca; however, in spite of his desire to travel, the merchant believed that it was too late in his life for the pilgrimage, explaining that he was destined only to dream of visiting Mecca. Santiago later understands this in speaking with the alchemist, when it is explained to him that when a person goes for a long time without listening to their heart’s desires, their heart no longer desires things, and the man would instead be destined to dream of what could have been.

Another character, the Englishman, appears rude at first, to ignoring Santiago. He begins to speak to Santiago when he is surprised to discover that the boy possesses Urim and Thummim, the white and black rock crystals given to Santiago by the King of Salem. By coincidence, the Englishman shows Santiago that he, too, possesses the same stones, hinting at the idea that they may both be on the path to fulfilling their own Personal Legends. The Englishman allows Santiago to read his books on Alchemy, explaining the reason for alchemy and his interest in it as the key to discovering a “universal language” that all things could understand. Santiago also learns the importance of pursuing his dream from the Englishman when they reach the oasis and finally meet the alchemist who possesses the Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life. Santiago is told to try what he always has, and to search for the answers where he had once failed. He accepts this and continues to practice alchemy.

When Santiago is caught by a scout in the desert, he uses his knowledge of alchemy and the alchemist’s wisdom to become the wind. This fulfillment of one’s personal legend recurs throughout the book as Santiago and others consider what do and would complete their lives – though in ways one might not expect. For Santiago, this becomes a quest for identity and self-realization, which leads him to find the greatest treasure of all.

“What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.

Recommendations for Teachers

There are many themes in The Alchemist which can generate productive classroom discussion.

For one, many people have said that reading the Alchemist has changed their lives. But in the novel, the Alchemist says, “There is only one way to learn . . . it’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey,” (125). Students could discuss whether or not this means those people have missed the point of the book. This is a great way to get students to think critically about the best ways to foster their own learning. They can also discuss whether reading a book can be part of a Personal Legend and how reading influences people.

This lesson plan (Mrs. Koplik’s Alchemist Lesson Plan) from Ontario, Canada, has some wonderful post-reading activities such as “Write Santiago’s “How-To Find Your Treasure” Handbook, or “Personal Legends for Dummies” and “Make a Scrapbook (with explanatory notes) of Santiago’s travels—feature pictures and items which Santiago accumulates as he learns about life.” Koplik includes open-ended discussion questions such as, “Coelho states that ‘simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them.’ Produce a written or artistic response (or bring something to class) which depicts something that is ‘simple’ yet valuable to you. Be prepared to explain specifically why/ how the item is valuable.” Also included are many vocabulary words related to geography, religion, and other themes from the novel. Understanding these new words will help students better understand the story.

The Narcissus story in the prologue and the fable of the king, Melchizedek, relates to Santiago on pages 30-32 provide the opportunity to discuss the fables and legends. A teacher could introduce a class to the genres of fables and legends and discuss with the class how they influence the book.

NOTE: The book contains unconventional ideas concerning religion and how religion should be interpreted. Teachers should tread carefully when teaching in a religiously conservative area and explain that everyone is entitled to his or her own views regarding religion.

“The story has the comic charm, dramatic tension, and psychological intensity of a fairy tale, but it’s full of specific wisdom as well…A sweetly exotic tale for young and old alike.” – Publishers Weekly

About Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian native currently living in Rio de Janiero.

Throughout his life, Coelho had long-standing dreams of one day becoming a writer, but struggled for years working through jobs he found unfulfilling. He felt that his own personal legend (to use his book’s terminology) was to write.

Coelho briefly attended law school, but later decided against it as a career choice, choosing instead to travel across much of South and Central America, Europe, and Africa. After returning home, he spent two years as a popular songwriter.

According to Coelho, one of his life’s most defining moments was during his walk on the Road of Santiago de Compostela – spanning over five-hundred miles across northwestern Spain – he felt that he attained a spiritual awakening, or self-awareness, that he called “The Pilgrimage, a topic revisited in The Alchemist.

He is a firm believer in following one’s dreams, and that no matter what hardships a person might be confronted with, people will reach their goals if they believe in themselves. He published The Alchemist in Portuguese in 1988, and it has since sold over twenty million copies worldwide and has been translated into sixty-seven different languages. Paulo Coelho has won a number of awards for his books, and was awarded a Crystal Award for Artistic Achievement at the Davos Economic Forum Conference.


Coelho talks about connecting with literature during an interview at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. He reminds readers that books don’t change people’s lives—people change their own lives.

A fan-made trailer for The Alchemist.

Additional Resources