“Paper Towns”

January 5, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Fiction, Young Adult Fiction | 9 Comments

John Green’s Paper Towns is an excellent read.  Unfortunately, it’s probably a better read for adults than for the young adult audience to which it’s aimed.  I found this out the hard way while reading it to the 14-year-old Sweetie Junior on our last road trip.

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We learned from reading Gemma Malley’s The Resistance that it was best to vet a book for language and content before reading it, since SJ is a little shy about even mild swearing, much less “adult” topics.  I clicked the link on my library’s website for the Publishers Weekly review, and it marked Paper Towns for ages 12 and up.  I thought this sounded like a good substitute for reading the same book twice; as conscientious as I try to be, I’m not actually a parent and I do prefer to read my own stuff.

The story is fantastic.  The characters are believable and multi-dimensional, and the dialogue is hysterically funny.  In fact, there were several points when we had to stop reading because we were all laughing too hard.  We were beside ourselves to get through this 300+ page book, which took about 12 hours to read aloud.

So what’s the problem?  Well, I would rather have had SJ read it when she was 16 – and there’s absolutely no way I would have been happy to have a 12-year-old read it.  It was full of f-bombs, for one thing, not to mention a full panoply of other swear words.  There were discussions about social diseases and a running joke about male anatomy.  There were vast quantities of alcohol, teen drinking, and even a keg stand.  There was a thread about suicide, too.  Like I said, it was a great read, but for a 12-year-old?  What kind of 12-year-olds hang out at Publishers Weekly, anyway?

On the way home, after finishing the book, we actually got into a bit of an argument about appropriate reading matter for young people.  My man Rocket Scientist has been put off by his daughter’s interest in the Twilight series – he’s the sort who can’t watch horror films – and he wanted her to quit reading it, on the one hand, and start reading a better quality of literature, on the other.  She threw a fit and said he could neither force her to read books she didn’t want to read nor to quit reading something before she’d finished the series.  (She’s a completist, something I understand but let go of years ago when I realized the Clan of the Cave Bear series wasn’t exactly improving).  We haven’t resolved this situation yet.

It’s extremely challenging, to put it mildly, to find reading material for young teenagers that interests them, much less material that’s also actually appropriate.  Books like Paper Towns succeed wildly on the first count, though unfortunately aren’t quite there on the second count.  It makes me wish we could count on authors themselves to provide a reliable recommended lower age range for their works.



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  1. If I had a teenage daughter, I’d be concerned about her reading the Twilight series not because of the vampires but because of the domineering, horribly unhealthy relationship between Bella and Edward. Very glad that I don’t have a teenage daugther! lol

  2. You’ve indicated our two sides perfectly! He’s opposed to the vampires; I’m opposed to the rest of it.

    Trish and I are going to be doing a joint post on the Twilight series soon, so I’m saving all my commentary about Twilight until then. Heh heh.

  3. Although I don’t have a 12-year-old, I have to say that I’ve met a few 12-year-olds lately. When they don’t think you are watching, the full vocabulary comes out.

    I was reading Stephen King when I was twelve — a dad recommended “Skeleton Crew.” Scared the crap out of me.

    However, I turned out just fine. Happily married, no tattoos, and still afraid of the dark.

    My parents never censored my reading and we never really talked about what I was reading.

    My guess is that vetting what you are going to read out loud is more key. Sometimes the secret reading lives of tweens should stay a secret.

    And maybe when they grow up, they’ll love books and the adventures they provide safely out of reality. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll end up working for a book publisher … like me!

  4. I agree that bad language isn’t really that big a deal, at least in a casual, unofficial sense. I swear like a sailor, myself, or perhaps worse than a sailor. I was just surprised that Publishers Weekly itself rated the book that way. The main reason I was concerned with language was because the kid is embarrassed by it.

    Teen drinking, on the other hand, I find far more serious, because it’s… against the law! It’s one thing for a 12-year-old to curse like a Norwegian parrot, but it’s another for them to be reading a fun, exciting story about a cooler full of 212 bottles of beer.

    That being said, I started reading Stephen King at at age 8 (Carrie) and I turned out fine too. Though that could be partly because I also read heavy doses of the Little House books, Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott, Tolkien, and other books totally lacking in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

  5. I’ve never opened any Twilight books, or Paper Towns, but I did read Clan of the Cave Bear. And the second one was just okay, and then it quickly went downhill. I never wanted to go back after quitting a few pages into the Mammoth Hunters.

  6. Can’t wait to read about Twilight! Like KatG, my reading was never censored, and even though I read about drinking/drugs/suicide/sex, I never did any of those things in high school. Most of the conversations I overheard in school needed to be censored! lol

  7. As a John Green fan, I do agree that his novels are intended more for the high school and college aged young adult. I loved Paper Town’s message of how we never really look at people how they really are, but how we see ourselves in them.

    Twilight on the other hand, I find insulting to women. The relationship in the book is unhealthy and the female lead is leading readers to a backwards feminism path. Meyer’s writing did not impress me much either.

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