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.
- John Green’s Official Website – The official website of author John Green.
- The Omnictionary – “Omnictionary” page with references to the people, places, and things in the novel, created by John Green after the publication of Paper Towns.
- VlogBrothers – author John Green and his brother Hank Green’s vlog (video blog).
- Nerdfighters! – author John Green and his brother Hank Green’s Ning network.
- John Green’s Twitter – John Green frequently posts “Tweets” about his books, book tours, and answers questions from his readers.
- Nerdfighters Vlog – John talks about the possibility of a movie version of Paper Towns.
- School Library Journal – Teen’s Top Ten – Teens from all across the United States voted Paper Towns as their favorite book of the year!
- Teen Literacy Tips – A blog about teaching writing to teens.
- Teen Book Review – The Teen Book Review writes about Paper Towns.
- Copyright Traps, Paper Towns, and Tabasco – Read about real “paper towns”, including some of those featured in the novel!
- Paper Towns Playlist – A music playlist for Paper Towns created by author John Green.
- Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, with the entire poem, “Song of Myself”, available on Google Books.