Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

What’s it like to be trapped in your own mind, with obsessive thoughts that manifest into socially awkward behaviors you don’t know how to control? Aza Holmes, Holmesy to her best friend Daisy, is far from the legendary Sherlock who could use his obsessive nature to solve crimes. Terrified of acquiring a bacterial infection at the slightest human interaction, Aza struggles with being attentive to her best friend’s love life and Star Wars fan fiction, missing her father who passed away, or even battling against her own downward thought spirals. But the two girls decide to solve the local Case of the Fugitive Billionaire. An insanely wealthy childhood friend named Davis has a father on the run, with a $100,00 reward for his capture. Aza reconnects with the one friend who also knows the endless pain of having lost a parent, and allows him to get closer than anyone before. This novel is essential reading for every teen in America as well as any person who’s ever struggled with or known anyone with a mental disorder. Painful yet hilarious, Turtles All The Way Down is one of the most brutally honest and necessary books of our time and often reflects the author’s own real struggles.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did Aza constantly feel like life was happening to her, and she wasn’t in control of it, from the lunch bell to her thoughts and fears and compulsive digging of her fingernail into the pad of her finger?
  2. Aza enjoyed spending indirect time with Davis, looking at the stars together and messaging him. Why did she prefer this type of interaction over being physically present or physically engaged with him?
  3. Why had Aza named her car Harold and why was she so attached to him? (For those who’ve read The Fault in Our Stars, what object did Hazel grace name?)
  4. What did Aza and Daisy do with their money? How did they view it as living the “American Dream”? Similarly, what did “American food” essentially mean at their most frequented restaurant?
  5. Davis noticed Aza’s bandaged finger and asked her if it hurt. Why did she reply, “Whether it hurts is kind of irrelevant” and he declared that a good life motto?
  6. Why was Aza often “forced to choose between lying and seeming weird” when people, especially boys or her mother, asked what she was thinking? What were some of the stranger or funnier things she often thought about but kept to herself? How might it have been better for her if she did allow conversations to spark because of her unusual knowledge and opinions?
  7. Who was the entire estate of Russell Pickett to be left to in the event of his demise, and why?
  8. What did Davis think of the quote by William James that “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another” and how did Davis and Aza bond over their opinion?
  9. Davis and Aza both had the loss of a parent in common when they were young. Why did Davis say that “when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone” and in reply Aza “And once you know that, you can never forget it”? How could this perspective be used to effect more positive changes in their lives, especially in how they reacted towards the people they hadn’t lost?
  10. Why was it so difficult for Aza to describe her pain to others? What makes language or even the written word sometimes fall short in this category?
  11. How did Aza’s mother’s advice sometimes help her: “Your now is not your forever”?
  12. Why did Aza love having her father’s old phone to look at the pictures he’d taken, and consider it magical?
  13. Why did Daisy once tell her best friend when she noticed her putting hand sanitizer on her finger again, “Don’t let Aza be cruel to Holmesy”? What does that mean if they are both the same person?
  14. Why wasn’t Aza sure if she loved Davis, and why wasn’t that the same thing as both of them having their hearts broken in the same places? What kind of bond did they have then?
  15. Why was Aza obsessed with C. diff?
  16. What were some of the wise, consoling bits of advice Daisy gave Aza and what did they mean, particularly about her being like the city and not the river?
  17. What does “turtles all the way down” mean, both in the illustration, and as a symbol for Aza?
  18. Aza at first felt like she had no choices, especially in her thought life, but aspect of her thoughts could she choose?
  19. Why wasn’t Aza as afraid as Daisy when they were in the tunnel at the art showing? How did Aza use the tunnel and the flashlight to describe control, power, and her thoughts?
  20. Why did Davis steal and send Aza the spiral painting?

The Recipe

Dr. Pepper Cupcakes with Cherry Almond Vanilla Frosting

Dr. Pepper is Aza’s favorite soda, one which she is offered often by Davis, at his home and when they go out to eat. This is also something Davis remembers when he first sees Aza after her boat “crashes” in the river near the back of his property.

Dr. Pepper Cupcakes with Cherry Almond Vanilla Frosting



  • 2 sticks (one cup) salted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract, divided
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1 cup, plus 2 tbsp Dr. Pepper
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • Half of a 13.5 oz jar of dark pitted cherries, chopped
  • 1 tbsp and 1 tsp of cherry juice from jar


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine the oil with the brown sugar in mixing bowl on medium-low speed for about one minute. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and baking powder.
  2. To the sugar, add the sour cream, the tablespoon of cherry juice, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, then the eggs, one at a time. Drop the speed to low and add the flour mixture in thirds, very slowly. Finish with the cup of Dr. Pepper. Scoop into paper-lined muffin tins and bake for 17-19 minutes.
  3. For the frosting, cream together the two sticks of butter in a clean bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed until they are whipped and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Drop the speed to low and carefully add 2 cups of powdered sugar, followed by the remaining teaspoon of vanilla, teaspoon of almond extract, and teaspoon of cherry juice.
  4. When those are combined, add the last two cups of powdered sugar, making sure to scrape down the insides of the bowl if needed. Finally, add the chopped cherries and mix on low or by hand with a sturdy spatula, only until cherries are mixed in. Pipe using an XL round tip onto cupcakes that have been cooled at least 20 minutes.

Similar Reads

Other novels by John Green include the bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, about two teens suffering from cancer who find each other and a way to find the answer to Hazel Grace’s burning questions about her favorite novel. Looking for AlaskaPaper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Will Greyson, Will Greyson are also fantastic novels by John Green.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is another brilliant and important teen novel about overcoming repressed memories of abuse and finding your voice and reasons to stay instead of only being a wallflower who allows life to happen to you.

Books, characters, and authors referenced within this book were Sherlock Holmes, The Tempest, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Keats, Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Scarlet Letter, Edgar Allen Poe, Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Ulysses, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Frost.

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty is another teen novel written by an intelligent, snarky, observant misfit who struggles to comprehend life’s greatest questions, and one day all her preconceptions are shattered when the school’s notorious stoner challenges her to do the world’s strangest and most disgusting favor, turning her life upside down.

In Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe, a man named Austin also has to raise his younger brother due to a family tragedy. But in this cozy romantic comedy, Austin works at a bank and takes a wise chance on a young woman named Izzy dying to start a career as a baker at the shady storefront not far from him.

© 2017 Amanda Leitch


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