Paper Towns – By John Green

I’ve read three of John Green’s books now. Rather than worry that I have the literary tastes of an adolescent girl, I’ve decided that they’re a connection to my daughter who’s growing up so fast. They’re also an insight into the hopes and dreams and fears of my adolescent students. In Paper Towns Green tells a terrific story that feels very real as his characters peel away layers of identity that they have applied to themselves and to their friends.

Things I really liked about Paper Towns and why it belongs in English courses:

  • There’s a mystery. The plot works. The adventures feel genuine.
  • There are great literary connections. Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” plays a central role in the novel. Holden Caufield doesn’t appear, but an essay comparing him to central character Margo Ross Spiegelman is an obvious task. Canadians might draw contrasts to Hagar Shipley or even Susanna Moodie.
  • John Green does so much work for teachers with his thoughtful FAQs. In discussing Paper Towns he provides rich content for book circles. He addresses the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl“,  his relationship as an author with his readers and the importance of ambiguity in novels, and other authorial tidbits like this one:

Q. What titles did you consider before coming up with “Paper Towns”?
A. More Light Than Heat. I was really in love with that one for a long time. (Shakespeare)
Love Loves to Love Love. I thought that one was a hot slice of clever. (Joyce)
The Life and Hard Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman.
Chasing Margo. This ended up being the German title.
Margo Roth Spiegelman: An Incomplete Life 
They were all more pretentious than Paper Towns. I come up with like 1,000 titles, and then Sarah and Julie laugh at me for my pretentiousness and we try to settle on the least pretentious title. I don’t know how I ever got The Fault in Our Stars past their pretention detectors. 

  • And lastly, there’s a film coming out. That opens up all sorts of media analysis possibilities ranging from discussions of casting, to the changes in the plot, to responses to reviews, to analysis of the marketing.

Character Analysis – Introvert Island

Gemma Correll’s The Introvert’s Heart

Novel discussion groups can become formulaic without the injection of new material to spark interesting debate. This terrific graphic by Gemma Correll provides excellent fodder for character analysis. Use the graphic as a standalone discussion starter or consider using it alongside Susan Cain’s excellent TED Talk “The Power of Introverts“.
This assignment page could be used as a follow-up task:  Character Analysis – The Power of Introverts

Keeping Book Club Discussions Fresh

Books clubs, novel discussion groups, literary analysis seminars, literature circles or whatever we call sitting down with students to thoughtfully and purposefully discuss a text they’re reading is my preferred way to study a novel, but like any instructional approach repetition can feel monotonous. One way to maintain student interest in the conversations is through the introduction of a second short text to the discussion. Provide the short text to the students just prior to the discussion and challenge them to interpret their novel in response to the new text.

Here are a few short articles / poems that might help:

  1. Character Analysis: Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset
  2. Character Analysis: How To Get Out of A Bad Mood
  3. Character Analysis: The Difference Between External and Internal Focus
  4. Plot Analysis: The Storytelling Animal
  5. Figurative Language Analysis: author John Green on his novel Fault in our Stars
  6. Thematic Analysis: Ozymandias and Arrogance 
  7. Thematic Analysis: A Dream Deferred

Fingerprint Words

Matthew J.X. Malady has written a terrific essay about word choice for Slate. It’s a great exploration of how our vocabulary defines us. It’s a thoughtful and complicated text that would be a great close read for a senior class… or could be cut down for a junior class.  You might consider using it as a prompt prior to a novel discussion group meeting. Senior students could read the article and then apply the thinking to the choices the author of their book made in creating the text’s characters. Junior students could read an edited version of the article and identify the “fingerprint words” of some of the main characters in the text.

In a Writer’s Craft class, I think this article could be a great launching pad for some narrative writing.

Fingerprint Words from

P.S. – Isn’t J.X. Malady a great name for a fictional villain?  Students could create a list of great character names and the “fingerprint words” that would define them.

Why teens love dystopian stories…

Divergent won the box office race last weekend as teens raced to see the popular YA novel brought to life (my daughter saw it twice in three days). film critic Dana Stevens has a slightly snarky take on why teens find dystopian stories so appealing.

Why teens love dystopias” – article with study questions.

Her article is not an easy read, but might provide an example of how an engaging topic and strong prior knowledge can help students bridge vocabulary challenges.  The final paragraph of the article includes the words:  “realpolitik”, “allegorical”, “multitiered”, “affiliation”, “constrictively”, and “malevolent”. Rather than pre-teach the vocabulary, consider challenging the students to closely read the final paragraph and construct meaning using strategies they devise.

Close Reading, Allusion and Blissful Ignorance

The media depictions of Dunn and Davis can be very
interesting and revealing of point of view.

I had somehow remained ignorant of the story of the death of Jordan Davis until I saw this brief article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic‘s website: “On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn“. Coates’ first person response to the verdict in the trial of Davis’ killer is powerful, poetic and was for me impenetrable — until I did some research.  It’s a great example of the power of allusion.

The more research I did the more I appreciated Coates’ writing. 10 years ago I would have turned the page and moved on. This morning I started Googling.  Reading has changed.

This is a great resource for teaching our students persistence and close reading skills.

Overview of the case from The Christian Science Monitor website: “The Loud Music Murder Case

Critical Literacy: Point / Counter Point

3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor

Bill Gates annual report on the Gates Foundation –
2014 Gates Annual Letter: Myths About Foreign Aid – Gates Foundation is a great example of digital publishing techniques combining text, graphics and video.  It has also prompted discussions on Gate’s predictions, particularly from Joshua Keating at  “Incomes in Africa Have Barely Budged for the Last 15 Years

Students could read and evaluate Gate’s claims and evaluate Keating’s criticisms.  Excellent opportunity for rich discussions and further research.

The Rosie Project


A fast read, and a great companion / counterpoint to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, or The Reason I Jump or as a great contrast to Sisters Brothers, Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. Chapter 2 stands alone as a charming character study of a man on the Asperger’s spectrum: Chapter 2 of The Rosie Project.

From GoodReads.comNarrator Don Tillman 39, Melbourne genetics prof and Gregory Peck lookalike, sets a 16-page questionnaire The Wife Project to find a non-smoker, non-drinker ideal match. But Rosie and her Father Projectsupersede. The spontaneous always-late smoker-drinker wants to find her biological father. She resets his clock, throws off his schedule, and turns his life topsy-turvy.


Ben Stiller has published a recording of the classic Thurber story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to promote his feature film interpretation of the story.  You can find the original short story here:  pdf and the recording here: audio version

Students who’ve seen the movie might be interested in hearing the source material.  The episodic nature of the story invites “fan fiction” versions.  Students could try to capture Thurber’s voice and write an additional scene.

Update:  Google Forms Quiz comparing the film trailer and the short story – with embedded video.