Paper Towns is a mystery told with humor. In places, the characters' actions provide laugh out loud comedy. However, it is also a sensitive coming of age novel in which the main protagonists, Margo and Q (or Quentin), discover their identities and face facts about themselves.
If you're a person who hates to be told the ending of a good story, be warned and jump to the section on characters.
The novel begins with a prologue which explains the relationship between Margo and Quentin who bonded as children when they found a dead body. The discovery linked them and although they grew apart, Q is still secretly in love with his old friend.
The scene is set in the early 2000s, prior to graduation, at Jefferson High, in Orlando, Florida. Quentin, with his friends Radar and Ben, are a nerdish gang, providing a sharp contrast to Margo, who is popular and lively.
The action begins when Margo gets Quentin to help her implement her plan to take revenge on her ex-boyfriend. During the night, they perform a series of pranks to embarrass the boy and his new girlfriend Becca. Quentin feels his relationship with Margo is renewed by their shared experience but the following day she has disappeared.
Quentin enlists the help of his friends to look for Margo. While high school is ending, they follow a trail of clues which leads nowhere. During this time, as Quentin begins to understand Margo's repeated use of the words 'paper towns,' he becomes insightful and starts to understand he has sentimentalized Margo into someone she is not. Finally, Quentin grasps the real meaning of the phrase as cartographers use it and solves the mystery of where Margo is hiding out.
On graduation night, Quentin and his gang, along with Ben's girlfriend Lacey, dash off upstate to Agloe on a twenty-one-hour road trip. There they find Margo in an old barn. Quentin's friends are disgusted by her irresponsible selfishness at leaving in the way she did; her action has disrupted their lives. However, Quentin and Margo have both come to understand their relationship was based on false impressions they had of each other. Consequently, they come to appreciate their future is not together.
At the end of the novel, Margo realizes she should stop running away from adult responsibility, and Q understands his relationship with Margo was a romanticized obsession not based in reality.
- Quentin - The narrator of the story, Quentin, has had a longstanding crush on his neighbor Margo. Following a crazy night when they behave like pranksters, he is even more enamored, so when she disappears he and his gang try to trace her. Despite his studious nature and his friendships with his school pals Ben and Radar, he neglects his schoolwork and his friends' emotions as his obsession with Margo increases.
- Margo - Margo is a lively, charismatic girl with a love of American literature, music and travel. She has already left home several times. She feels the need to change her identity and running away is an attempt to distance herself from her hometown persona and dysfunctional family. However, the paper trail of clues she leaves indicates she needs someone to understand her true character.
- Ben - One of Quentin's good friends, Ben is a strong character who has been labeled through a vicious story Becca has spread about him. During the novel his decisiveness is important.
- Radar - Being the best friend, Radar is the most critical of Quentin's obsession about Margo. He is not afraid to say what he thinks and berates Quentin for his selfishness.
- Lacey - Lacey is Ben's girlfriend. She is portrayed as Margo's one solid friend and is truly concerned for her welfare even though Margo has played a nasty trick on her. Lacey joins the group to help find Margo and goes to considerable trouble to get flyers around New York City. Finally, she accompanies the boys on their trip to Agloe, missing graduation.
Accolades and Reviews
Among the many awards received by John Green for Paper Towns, Random House lists the prestigious Edgar Award bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America, the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, as well as Booklist's Best Book of the Year for 2009.
- The Guardian newspaper refers to Paper Towns as a "fantastic, interesting and unique novel" mentioning the humor and the discussion of identity as highlights.
- On John Green's author page there is an abundance of reviews of Paper Towns. Johanna Lewis in the School Library Journal praises the prose as astounding, saying it ranges from "hyper-intellectual trash talk" to "complex philosophizing and devastating observation and truths." It is also referred to as a "suspenseful" mystery by Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books.
This novel has put many parents into a dilemma as to whether it is suitable for high school students and some schools have dropped it from their reading lists. According to Popcrush, John Long Middle School dropped Paper Towns from their summer reading list after one mother, Joanne Corcoran, brought the book to the attention of the board. Her eighth-grade daughter had asked questions about the terminology of the book she found mortifying. Joanne Hurley, a member of the school board admitted she thought the book "may be appropriate for older kids" but was "questionable" for children in the eighth grade.
Common Sense Media also contains parents' reviews on Paper Towns; these are of a mixed nature but some mention the language as unsuitable for young teens and immature pupils.
Decide for Yourself
As a parent, you have to choose whether you should censor Paper Towns or allow your kids to read this novel. Perhaps the best path is to read it yourself before or at the same time as your teens. Then you can talk about its themes and ideas with your children, ensuring they fully grasp what the book is about. While the language may be unsuitable to some, you can use this book as a starting point for discussion on identity awareness.