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: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Fear Factor: Coraline’s chills tap primal emotions in all its audiences

Neil Gaiman. Coraline. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2002.

“The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring.”

Alice in Wonderland. Peter Pan. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Every so often, stories are written that relate so well with its audience thematically, emotionally, and personally in such fantastic ways that they become timeless tales that will resonate with their readers, young and old, for years to follow.

Add Coraline to that list of stories.

Neil Gaiman creatively crafted his 2002 Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning novella, Coraline, with this in mind. Told through the eyes of its titular heroine, Gaiman treats readers to whimsical overtones that breathe a strange but appropriately-satirical life into the story, with a sort of naïveté familiar to young readers and nostalgic to his older audiences, but entirely signature of his books, ranging from other child-oriented stories like 2009 Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book, to stories spun for older readers, including Neverwhere and the equally-decorated Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning American Gods.

“I’m an explorer,” says Coraline, a curious eleven-year-old girl whose family moves into a boring old flat in a boring old house with some strange old neighbors. As a self-proclaimed explorer, Coraline’s wonderment, curiosity, caution, and skepticism resound throughout Gaiman’s thrilling narrative. Readers of all ages may find themselves nervous and uneasy with chills as they are engaged in Coraline’s fantastical adventure – from young adolescents and pre-adolescents who wonder about the world in the mist or the other side of the mirror, and to adults who remember longing to be somewhere over the rainbow. Gaiman’s straightforward but evocative style keeps its readers engaged and excited throughout, satisfying that desire to take a trip there and back again.

Coraline saves herself, her parents, and friends from the evils of another world that readers explorers along with Coraline, who learns through the story to be brave and how to conquer her fears and “beat the dragons”. Gaiman’s imaginative and mysterious, dangerous, and tempting world beyond the door-to-nowhere invokes readers to enter the world with its plucky protagonist (even if we should know better) because – like Coraline – readers will want to know more about what’s on the other side. Discovering the story’s vivid setting and diverse cast of characters provokes a sense of urgency to unravel the story’s mystery that will keep the pages turning from the first page to the last.

Coraline’s fairly simple language both makes it a very understandable and quick read with little ambiguity as to its meaning. This at once makes Coraline a fairly straightforward fantasy-horror novel while giving enough leeway to analytical readers for interpreting some of the potential social and cultural contexts beyond the story’s surface.

Recommendations for Teachers

Coraline is said to be for readers from ages 9 to 12, however some of the things that Coraline encounters in the “other” flat could be potentially frightening to readers at the lower end of that age range, and would be more appropriate for ages 11 and up. Though Coraline is most often shelved under juvenile literature, older students and even adults would enjoy it as well.

There are several themes and ideas in Coraline that would lend themselves to good discussion in the classroom. For example, Coraline says that “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave” (59). A teacher might ask, “Do you agree with Coraline’s definition of bravery?” Or, “What do you think it means to be brave?” Another interesting discussion could center around names. Many of the adults Coraline talks to confuse her name, calling her “Caroline” instead. The cat she meets has no name and insists that cats do not need names: “You people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names” (37). Links to further discussion questions can be found under “Additional Resources” on this page.

A movie version of Coraline was released recently which follows the storyline of the book quite well; it is rated PG and so would be appropriate in any classroom. Viewing the movie in class (or possibly just watching a few clips, in the interest of time) could add to the discussion. Students could be asked to compare scenes from the book with those in the movie and answer questions such as “Why do you think they portrayed the scene that way?” Or, “Do you think changing this scene made it better?Coraline Graphic Novel by P. Craig Russell

One way to integrate Coraline into a somewhat more general Language Arts curriculum is to explore different methods of telling the story. For example, the teacher might mention or show the 2008 graphic novel in class. This idea can be adapted to a number of activities including dramatic interpretation and writing.

With writing as an example, students might be given a few pages out of the graphic novel adaptation and asked to rewrite the scene in narrative prose or a play script. Alternatively, scenes in the book and graphic novel could be compared and contrasted to show similarities and differences to promote class discussion and share thoughts as to why differences might exist and how a scene could otherwise have been interpreted. This could be done in reverse, as well, having students act out scenes, themselves, based on what they know about characters and how they would react to certain situations, or with pictures; and with the 2009 movie adaptation of Coraline, this type of exercise could also be done with scenes from the film.

About Neil Gaiman

Born in West Sussex, England in 1960, Neil Gaiman had been a ravenous reader at an early age, enjoying the works of such classic authors as C .S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ursula LeGuin – influences which would stay with him throughout his later writing career. After graduating from school (he attended several, including Ardingly College and Whitgift School), he began a career in journalism, specializing in book reviews, with a hope to learn more about successful authors so that he might one day publish his own book.

In 1984, Gaiman published his first book, Ghastly Beyond Belief, and has been a prolific writer even since. He also writes novels for adults, such as American Gods, as well as for children, like The Graveyard Book. Gaiman also writes comic books and graphic nove ls, like The Sandman. He has also written numerous works of short fiction, a number of screenplays, non-fiction, and has collaborated with other authors on various projects.

Gaiman likes to stay connected to his fan base by going on tour after each new book release. He updates his online journal at neilgaiman.com almost daily and frequently “tweets” on his Twitter.

Gaiman currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is engaged to musician Amanda Palmer.

Neil Gaiman’s Awards

Hugo Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

Nebula Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline

World Fantasy Award:

  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book
  • 2009 – Odd and the Frost Giants
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 1999 – Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar
  • 1994 – Troll Bridge
  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations
  • 1991 – Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
  • 1991 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Charles Vess)

Bram Stoker Award:

  • 1993 – The Sandman
  • 1998 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 1999 – The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
  • 2001 – American Gods
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2003 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • 2003 – The Sandman: Endless Nights

Locus Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Sandman: Endless Nights
  • 2004 – Closing Time
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2005 – Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things
  • 2007 – How to Talk to Girls at Parties
  • 2008 – The Witch’s Headstone
  • 2009 – Coraline (Graphic Novel Adaptation)
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

British Science Fiction Award:

  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • British Fantasy Award:
  • 2005 – The Problem of Susan
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things


  • 2000 – Stardust
  • 2003 – American Gods
  • 2004 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys

International Horror Award:

  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations


Dreamworks animation studio released a 2009 film adaptation of Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (who also directed Tim Burton’s James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas). The film, though not entirely faithful to the book – with the introduction of new characters (such as Wybie), and much creative license taken – had very good critical reception and grossed over $121 million at the box office.

New York’s MCC Theatre has created a musical adaptation of Coraline, with music written and performed by Stephin Merritt. All of the music is played on piano, but in a unique form called a piano orchestra, which uses a few different kinds of pianos. This includes one known as a prepared piano: “a piano that has had its sound altered by attaching objects – such as tinfoil, rubber bands and playing cards”. The show ran a limited engagement until July 5th, 2009.

Interview with Neil Gaiman about his inspiration for Coraline and more.

Recommended Reads

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Additional Resources and Further Reading

HarperCollins – Publishers Website – Publishers website on Coraline complete with discussion questions, brief introduction, biography on the author and illustrator. Contains links to various downloads and extras. Book Talk Guildlines/Review – Complete with summary, book talk, and recommendations for books like Coraline. If you click on “Guidelines”, it has an outline to a book discussion.
Official Movie Website – Interactive official movie website complete with trailer, map of the house, and information on the DVD, author, cast, and more! Neil Gaiman Interview on Coraline movie – Exclusive interview with Neil Gaiman on his take of the film. It has links to excerpts of the book, story of Coraline and the creation of her character.
Neil Gaiman’s Twitter – Find out what Neil Gaiman’s up to! Critics Statements and Author Awards – Shows awards that were won for the Coraline novel, and also some statements from Critics on the Coraline novel.
Coraline book reviews – Links to published book reviews by journalists. Neil Gaiman’s website – The author’s official website, complete with information about himself, Coraline, and his other works.
Wikipedia – Coraline – Gives the book’s plot and and descriptions of the main characters. Jezebel – Coraline’s Neil Gaiman Is “Nobody’s Bitch”
Coraline at the Internet Movie Database Dreamworks animation studio
Amanda Palmer’s website American Library Association’s 2009 Newbery Awards website
Horror Writers Association – Bram Stoker Awards The Nebula Awards
The Hugo Awards Music samples from the stage adaptation
MCC Theatre in New York City

Compiled by Grand Valley State University students Erin Riedel, Joe VanWagner, Leah Austin, Colleen Duffy, Janna Rozenkranz for YAReviews Wiki and Teaching Literature to Adolescents with Robert Rozema, February 2010