Note to those who have not read Paper Towns: there will be no spoilers! I have discussed themes, not events, from the book.
Note on the title of this post: I borrowed a line from the excellent song ‘Where’s Margo?’ by Hank Green. Listen to it here!
This week I finished reading Paper Towns by John Green. Since then I have learned that the use of it (along with Looking for Alaska, another of Green’s novels) is being challenged by some parents at a high school in Colorado. More information on the challenge can be found at John Green’s blog here. Simply put, to suggest this book is “profane” or liable to result in the “irreparable erosion of my students’ moral character” is utterly wrong. It is neither of those things. But I will not waste time telling you what this story is not. Let me tell you about what it is, and what I think it can do for its readers.
At its heart, this is a story about empathy and human connection. Quentin, the protagonist and narrator, has known and admired Margo for years, though from a distance. To him Margo is a miracle. She is bold, brash and impulsive: everything that cautious and methodical Quentin believes he is not. He stands at an outer circle of the high school social structure, watching Margo as she entrances and confounds her peers from the center. He has looked out his bedroom window across to Margo’s for years, where her blinds have always prevented him seeing inside.
Then one night Margo herself comes in through Quentin’s window and drags him out of his home, his comfort zone, and the established pattern of their relationship. Pulled into the eye of Margo’s storm of activity, Quentin thinks they have become closer than ever before. When it becomes clear that the opposite is true and that Margo has run far beyond the ability of anyone to observe her, the relationship changes again. Quentin, so long the passive observer, is now actively seeking Margo.
As Quentin deciphers the clues Margo left behind he becomes simultaneously nearer to and farther from her. In attempting to unravel her trail he must first understand her thoughts, stripping away the façade Margo presented to the world and seeking the person underneath. He discovers that few if any of Margo’s peers have ever attempted this. We discover over the course of the story what each character thinks of Margo, how they perceive her. What becomes increasingly obvious is that nobody has ever asked Margo what she thinks of herself, or how she perceives herself.
Personally, I was struck by two elements of the story. The first is the exploration of the mental state of others. We are gradually but indirectly exposed to Margo’s thoughts. We know her only through Quentin’s eyes and, as Quentin discovers (with some help from the poet Walt Whitman) he cannot become her. I was profoundly moved by this. We all make assumptions about those around us based on outward appearances. We think we ‘know’ those closest to us, yet fail to ask them about themselves. Too often it never seems to occur to us to question, listen, the other, or consider the possibility of their pain. With mental health as a topic of increasing concern in our community, this story should strike a chord in all of us.
The second element of the story that struck me is that it is a story about a teenaged boy obsessed with a teenaged girl, who spends the entire story attempting to know and understand her better as a person. The more we are exposed to the concept of paper towns and people – flimsy, two-dimensional and shallow representations – the more Margo solidifies in Quentin’s mind, becoming more three-dimensional, complex and human. So many stories these days feature the woman as the objectified ‘prize’ of the male protagonist. We know the story arc too well: boy admires girl. Girl either plays hard to get, or somehow becomes inaccessible. Boy must undertake a quest, often enlisting the help of his (also male) friends. If boy successfully completes the quest, getting the girl is a foregone conclusion.
But here, Margo is not playing, and Quentin is not trying to ‘win’ her. He is not trying to follow her because he wants her (though he never denies the fact of his physical attraction or his desire for a closer friendship) but because he is concerned for her. He is trying to help her in the only way he can think of, and the conclusion of this story is in no way foregone. He does not know how it will end but he will do all he can to help it end well. More importantly he wants it to end well for Margo, even if that might not be the same as what would be ideal for himself.
That this book is being challenged in a high school is obviously the result of parental objections to some of the plot points. We are, after all, dealing with teenagers. They sometimes do things which adults (both inside and outside the story) object to. What the challengers are failing to notice is that this book is neither the cause of teenaged behaviour nor encouraging of immorality. Are the characters of Paper Towns sometimes silly and irresponsible, as teenagers are wont to be? Yes. But they also are faced with the consequences of their decisions, be they irresponsible or considered, and are actively engaged in learning to cope with the impact that the actions of others can have on their own lives and decisions.
In short, the adults condemning the use of this novel in a classroom setting are committing the same mistake which Quentin made and spends the entire novel trying to rectify: they are judging the surface, not the substance. I sincerely believe that engaging with and discussing the themes of this novel would ultimately benefit its readers, be they young adults or simply adults. I cannot accept that any of the behaviour portrayed in the novel would have been damaging to me as a person, had I read this while in high school myself. Leaving aside the fact that none of the behaviour would even have been entirely novel or surprising to me or my peers at that age, the characters themselves discover that these undertakings are often inherently unrewarding. This novel does not encourage thoughtlessness and wild abandonment, it encourages understanding and meaningful connection. Moreover, being exposed to this story with the built-in forum of a classroom to discuss and unpack the message this book is sending can only increase the fact that its readers will remember it for its themes, not merely its events.
For the sake of her students, I wish the teacher (who continues to stand by her curriculum choices despite the adversity) success in the defense of Paper Towns.