Turtles and Mental Health in Young Adult Fiction
After the explosive success of his young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green returns after six years with a painfully personal new novel: Turtles All the Way Down. High school junior Aza Holmes suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) resulting in “thought spirals” which prevent her from feeling comfortable in common adolescent experiences.
She consistently jabs her thumb into a cut on her middle finger, causing it to release pus, only to disinfect the cut with hand sanitizer and re-apply a Band-Aid. This habit, developed as an attempt to have a way of knowing her body was real, gave Aza even deeper anxiety about the possibility of the cut becoming infected by Clostridium difficile, a disease that in the rarest of cases results in death. She cannot kiss someone without going through a thought spiral about the 80 million microbes exchanged through saliva which will permanently inhabit her microbiome for the rest of her body’s life. Inhibitory is an understatement when describing the severity of Aza’s OCD.
In the past, Green’s novels have encapsulated the adolescent experience by focusing on themes of attraction, isolation, and coming of age, however, Turtles All the Way Down presents a departure from these staple young adult topics. Mental health comes with stigma and preconceived perceptions; people often associate OCD with germaphobes and neat freaks or that a pill fixes ADD and ADHD. Stemming from the personal experience of living with OCD, Green’s novel depicts life with mental illness as an ongoing individualized process without a simple cure. Most mental illness will remain in the present tense—“I had OCD” is an impossible statement.
Categorically considered Young Adult, the novel discusses mental health with an intimacy scarcely before seen in the genre. The novel is aimed at an audience still in the process of learning the ins and outs of social communication, experiencing feelings of intense emotion, and understanding how to take care of one’s mental health. Green’s characters not only exist to give hope and verification to those living with mental illness, but also to carefully depict the reality of having friends with mental illnesses. While Aza’s friends fail to identify with her thought spirals and quirky habits, Aza fails to act as a caring friend at times as well. The relationship Green creates between Aza and her best friend Daisy shows people living with mental illness do not deserve pity and also demonstrates the need of those with mental illnesses to consider the needs of the people around them.
Green’s novel presents an unglorified account of life with mental illness, striking an articulated balance between necessary adolescent self-realization and universally applicable truths regarding the hardships of the human mind.
To hear more about John's experience with OCD, listen to him talk about it here:
Turtles All the Way Down is available wherever books are sold. Also, the book's publisher Penguin Teen has created a playlist to enjoy while reading: