“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories…”
John Green, like his characters, picks the funny way. You can tell because I’m recommending that adults read a young adult novel about terminally ill teenagers. I understand this is a hurdle. I remember five people telling me that The Book Thief was a great a book, so I read the back cover (young girl in Nazi Germany, narrator is the Grim Reaper), and thought: No, thank you, could I have something with rainbows? And then six more people had to recommend it, before I thankfully gave it a chance.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars quickly and gracefully overcomes any apprehension you may have to read a story about sick children. TFIOS is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with thyroid cancer, and an oxygen tank as a BFF. Forced to attend Cancer Support Group, she meets Augustus Waters, a debonair young man with a prosthetic leg. He becomes smitten with Hazel and uses the full force of his charm and wit to woo her. When Hazel asks Augustus why he is staring at her, he says, “Because you’re beautiful. I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence.”
The story weaves the real-life roller coaster of disease into a teen romance, with doses of poetry, metaphor, violent video games, and the best use of Venn diagrams in contemporary fiction. It is irreverent and poignant. It is John Green doing what he does best—giving teenagers the opportunity to be nerdy and cool, smart but overwhelmed, fantastically awesome yet somehow real—and in this particular story, terminally ill but fully alive. Open to ecstasy and pain, as when Augustus reassures Hazel: “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”
Green does for cancer patients what he has been doing for teenagers in his previous novels. He gives them an authentic voice and is true to their experience in an entertaining way that is neither melodramatic nor flippant. He doesn’t write down to teenagers or up to a message. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
John Green is an Indianapolis literary treasure. That might seem like hyperbole; you might not even know him, but your fourteen-year-old nephew does. Green’s video blogs, produced with his brother Hank, are viewed by millions and have spawned a legion of Nerdfighters whose stated mission is to increase awesomeness and decrease world suck. So besides writing the kind of book where you dog-ear pages with sentences so wonderful they demand to be read aloud, John Green is busy leveraging his influence to make the world a better place. A Fault in Our Stars will eventually be required reading in sophomore English, and the sophomores will enjoy it, but don’t let the kids have all the fun.