YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Turtles All the Way Down

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Image from johngreenbooks.com



Book Talk:

If you’ve ever felt that your life was being written by someone else — your parents, your teachers, even your friends — you’ll relate to Aza, the main character in Turtles All the Way Down. Aza is a smart, sensitive sixteen year old who struggles with anxiety. Together with her friend Daisy, Aza goes on a goose-hunt for the father of an old camp friend of Aza — a billionaire who’s gone missing and for whom there is a significant monetary reward for anyone who brings helpful information to the table. You’ll love this book for its typical John green humor and wit, but also for its rawness and vulnerability — and for the deep dive it takes into the incredibly beautiful and complicated world of mental illness through the very real and lovable character Aza.

Sentence Study:

If I’d been the author, I would’ve stopped thinking about my microbiome. I would’ve told Daisy how much I liked her idea for Mychal’s art project, and I would’ve told her that I did remember Davis Pickett, that I remembered being eleven and carrying a vague but constant fear. I would’ve told her that I remembered once at camp lying next to Davis on the edge of a dock, our legs dangling over, our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood, staring together up at a cloudless summer sky. I would’ve told her that Davis and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see. (Chapter 1, Page 8)

This passage can help writers…

  • Use repetition for effect
  • Show don’t tell
  • Use absolute and participial phrases to add detail
  • Reveal a character’s (or their own) true feelings verses what other characters and people see and know

Together, the class might notice…

  • The repetition of the phrase “I would’ve told” (four times), emphasizing the tension between Aza’s true feelings and the hang-ups that prevent her from opening up
  • The if/then pattern (If I’d been the author, [then] I would’ve…
  • The trio of descriptive phrases to add detail
    • our legs dangling over (absolute phrase)
    • our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood (absolute phrase)
    • staring together up at the cloudless summer sky (participial phrase)
  • The mini scene within a scene (The external/present scene is Aza, sitting in the cafeteria with her friends; the inner scene is Aza and Davis on the docks)
  • The super-long compound-complex sentence followed by a short declarative sentence (“Anybody can look at you.”)
  • How the passage is bookended by big thematic statements (“If I’d been the author…” [of my own life…] and “It’s quite rare to fine someone who sees the same world you see.”)

Invite students to try it by saying…

In this scene, the main character Aza is holding a lot inside. There are things she wants to share with Daisy, but something is holding her back. Can you think of a time you wanted to tell someone something — but didn’t — because you were scared, distracted, or worried about the consequences of sharing that information? Maybe you wanted to open up to your mom or dad but were worried about getting in trouble…or perhaps you wanted to share something with your best friend but didn’t know what she would think. How might you use the phrase “I would’ve” to reveal something, big or small, you’ve been keeping inside?

What possibilities do you see here for your students? How could this sentence / passage study connect with the current literature or writing content in your class? How could it help your students? Leave us a comment below! 


  1. This is such an awesome way to introduce today’s YA lit to students, while at the same time connecting it to some of the required texts in class. There are so many possibilities! I love that I can use this post to guide my lesson, too, since I have not read this book (I just added it to my wish list…thank you!). The “Invite your students to try it” questions make for easy pairing of texts. We are reading Romeo and Juliet right now, and even though this is not a book I would normally pair it with, I now want to!! I haven’t completely thought it through yet, but I could have them take on the role of Romeo or Juliet and write about what they “would’ve” done differently if given the chance to go back and re-do the events of the last week. Then, we could discuss how this might change the outcome of the play. Again, the possibilites are endless, and this one lesson could last a day or a week. Thank you for this wonderful post! I can’t wait to learn about the other ways teachers are using YA lit in class! 🙂

    1. I LOVE the idea of using a sentence study to drive deeper in-class conversations about texts. I usually think of it the other way around–discuss a text, and then hone in on a sentence and study it for craft. But I think this “backwards” approach of studying a sentence for craft, and imitating it to reimagine/change the outcome of a story is really interesting. Please consider writing a post for us on this topic–would love to learn more from you and your students!

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