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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Read time- 8 hrs 



 (R) Recommended (High School Audience)
(C) Content- Profane/vulgar language, sexual references

National Alliance for Mental Health Hotlines
Call the NAMI Helpline 800-950-NAMI (6264)
M-F, 10 AM - 6 PM ET

Did They Really Read the Book?

Parents don't actually cover down on their high schooler's book reports, right?! ..Because it would strip the student of the opportunity to demonstrate responsibility, positive work ethics, and accountability for self...right?!

So, in lieu of the formal bullet point summary, here are the main threads:

  • This book captures the struggles of a smart, young woman named Aza, who suffers from a serious mental illness. It chronicles the various ways in which her illness ruthlessly consumes her and prevents her from maintaining meaningful relationships with those around her.
    • Aza is pre-occupied with  the though of contracting C. diff bacteria and has since the age of 11, habitually dug her fingernail in the pad of an adjacent finger to split open a callused wound to check for infection, it begins to heal, then she splits it back open fearing early stages of lethal infection.
    • Later she kisses Davis, and is wrecked with the though of his germs changing the composition of her microbiome- she develops a habit of drinking hand sanitizer to kill the germs
    • A car accident lacerates her liver and while in the hospital where C. diff is thought to be most prolific, she is caught by her mother cupping mouthful of foam sanitizer.
  • The story takes place in Indianapolis
    • According to the book, Indianapolis was founded on the banks of the White River for the access the waterway would facilitate for trading (except that the White River is almost too shallow for kayak)
  • Aza and her best friend Daisy devise a plan to find a local Billionaire who went missing on the eve of a legal indictment against his company
    •  $100k reward offered
    • Aza was previously friends with the Billionaire's son (Davis) and initially rekindles their friendship to find new clues
      • Aza and Davis develop feelings for one another and because Davis is used to the false pretenses of most relationships, he gifts Aza $100K to determine her motives for being with him
      • She splits it with Daisy 50/50 and continues to grow closer to Davis
  • Davis and his 13 y/o brother, Noah, have grounds keepers and service providers to care for them
  • For as long as Davis' Dad isn't found dead, his assets continue to support his kids, but upon his death everything is left to his pet Tuatara 
    • a distinct species with lineage traced back to the dinosaurs- It lives for 150 years and (in the book) is thought to hold the secret of aging in its DNA.
  • Daisy and Aza piece together clues that locate Davis' Dad (dead and decaying) in the unfinished tunnel project he was commissioned to build-Aza tells Davis, who anonymously tips the police towards the ultimate discovery.

[VOCAB (Oxford)]

pedantic (adjective -having the characteristics of a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.

suffuse (verb) -gradually spread through or over

Other Notes

Mental Health Resources

The National Alliance for Mental Illness provide a list of resources for anyone who needs help or wants to offer help.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255)
    • If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 who will help identify options and information about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.
  • Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741
    • Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
    • Trained expert advocates are available 24/7 to provide confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking resources and information. Help is available in Spanish and other languages.
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)
    • Connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area that offers access to a range of free services. Crisis chat support is available at Online Hotline. Free help, 24/7.

Language/Sexual References

I could have easily been standing in line to buy a movie ticket or walking down the isle of my favorite late-night shopping retreat and heard the same quality conversation between two people... Turtles All the Way Down has a great deal of profanity- and for a high school audience, the language choice gives a natural authenticity to the story; it sounds real... and when you're riding along-side Aza as she's spiraling out of control, it feels real too.

Daisy receives unsolicited "dick pics" and discusses with Aza her desire to lose her virginity
Three major take-away's for me (...the unabashed parent)
Given the context, it would be a missed parental opportunity in my house, not to talk about the following:
  1. safe sex
  2. sexual harassment
  3. child exploitation 
    1. sharing intimate pictures
    2.  how those pictures circulate
    3. implications in adulthood of choices made as teen


Equally as prevalent too, were really good one-liners and  quotes...
"...with science, you don't get answers, you just get better questions..." 
This was my favorite, alluding to the inability to describe something because there existed no word to label it.
“... English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache...” - Virginia Woolf

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Read time- 3 hrs 



(R) Recommended
(C) Content- Guns, Violence, Hate Crimes, Racism

This is a powerful story in its own right, but for the weight of the racial-violence and social issues between the pages, it's important for the young reader to have a trusted guide. (See Other Notes)

Did They Really Read the Book?

  • Story is told from Jerome's Point of View (PoV)
  • Jerome
    •  lives in a multi-generational home w/ Grandmother as the respected matriarch
    • is a good student, quiet, and caring big brother to his sister (Kim)
  • A new student (Carlos) moves from San Antonio and is introduced to Jerome's class
    • Jerome reluctantly befriends him
      • Jerome felt that when you're someone's friend, you're someone's alliance when conflict breaks out...and he didn't want the obligation
  • Jerome and Carlos eat lunch that first day together, behind locked stall doors, in the upstairs school bathroom
    • 3 bullies kick open the stall door and beat up Carlos
    • Carlos gets up and pulls a gun from his waistband, threatening the bullies
      • Jerome is scared at the sight of the gun and regrets his decision to be friends with Carlos
    • In private, Carlos reveals it's a fake plastic gun and at the end of the day gives it to Jerome to take home and role play Zombie hunter
  • A 911 call dispatches two police officers to the park where Jerome is playing with the plastic gun
    • Jerome is startled at the sound of a fast approaching car and starts to run away
    • Approaching the scene and still in his car, one officer shoots Jerome (who's running away)
    • Neither officer nor partner, now standing over Jerome's body, administer life saving treatment
      • Jerome dies before the ambulance arrives
  • Jerome (Dead) grieves for himself, struggles with his death, and its impact on his family
    • He's a ghost boy"
  • Jerome sees the Officer's daughter, Sarah, at the preliminary hearing and she sees him
    • Jerome talks to her- has contempt in his narrative for her innocence and privilege
    • Sarah feels torn and uncertain, questions the honesty behind her Dad's misjudgment, and wonders how she can help
  • Jerome also sees another "ghost boy" with Sarah
    • Later learns his name is Emmett Till 
      • An African American teenager from Chicago, who in 1955, was ***GRAPHIC*** lynched for his (misrepresented*) interaction with a white women.
  • Court ultimately ruled insufficient evidence to pursue a legal case against Sarah's Dad
    • Sarah finds her avenue to advocate for change by standing up a social-justice website and teaching others about disparate legal outcomes between races
  • Jerome finds peace with his death, with Sarah, and her Dad
    • but leaves to linger the understanding that his death, those deaths that have followed his, and those deaths still to be counted, demonstrate our collective weakness

There were two moments at the end of the book that brought Yours Truly to tears...(and that's ok...)

  1.  Carlos asking Jerome (Dead) for forgiveness is an emotional exchange. It's the kind of interaction between two boys that's nearly muted in kid's literature.  
  2. Sarah's attempt to rekindle a fading relationship with her Dad is described so delicately that you find yourself trying to look away out of respect--as if an unintended observer, during an intimate moment of family healing.


There are four discussions that seem imperative to address with my little readers: Civil Rights, Gun Safety, Social Disparity, Cultural Insights.

Civil Rights

Emmett's death (and his family's intention to have us all bear witness with an open casket) gave life to the Civil Rights Movement in a visceral way that spanned the Mason Dixon line (figurative reference to the cultural divide)

Jerome's death is descriptive and full of sensory triggers-it's remorseful and tragic.

The account of Emmett's death in the book is relentless and factually gruesome; it's so unsettling and the brutality so unfathomable by today's standards, that I wonder if an 8 yr old should be introduced the physical limitations of a human body under torture as were recounted by the author.

Gun Safety

Fake and plastic guns still have real implications.

My yahoos were introduced to a gun safety campaign a while back called Eddie Eagle. "Stop, Don't Touch, Run Away, Tell an Grown Up..." The awareness program is for younger kids, K-3rd Grade, but keep in mind that the books is also written at the 3rd grade level 
My emphasis is that even toy guns don't belong at school. Peer pressure is another item of discussion since Carlos insisted Jerome take the gun to play with. Again, all four step of Eddie Eagle "Stop, Don't Touch, Run Away, Tell an Grown Up..." would have prevented Jerome from at least having possession of the gun.

Social Disparity

However real or fictitious the story line, these kinds of schools and circumstance exist.

Jerome's school was tough; he feared for his life going to/from school, worried about gangs, drive-by's, drug dealers, and was fearful of police officers.  However real or fictitious the story may have been, those kinds of schools and circumstance exist.  My personal discussion with the kiddos is a question of where safety and opportunity are rights or a privileges.

Cultural Insight

Our successes are substantiated and propagated in other's perception of our situation

Scholars have published ethnographic papers on perceived symbols of status and it's so interesting to hear Jerome (and the Author who birthed him) call out several perceived characteristics of status when describing Sarah's privilege and circumstance: a big bedroom, book shelf  as "decoration", a two-car garage, having a front and back yard, sidewalks with no cracks, streets with lights...
It's a meaningful observation to emphasize with my kids... Do people without sidewalks/streetlamps recognize--or acknowledge--their disposition? It transitions well into a conversation about the broken window theory 



Bob Dylan's song,  Death of Emmett Till, is skillfully crafted, poignant, and hopeful for change.

"This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man

That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live."
 -Bob Dylan


A recently publish book by Historian, Timothy Tyson, offers new accounts from the accuser, Carolyn Brady that make this horrific story all the more tragic and senseless.