I know I’m a little late to the party, but I am working my way through the complete works of the current king of YA fiction, John Green. I was amazed at how many of my students read The Fault In Our Stars and loved it. One Y7 could recite entire passages of it. I had to see what all the fuss was about!
From the blurb, I don’t think I would’ve chosen to read The Fault In Our Stars. I don’t like sob stories, and on a superficial level, this novel sounded too close to mis lit for me. I’m really glad I picked up a copy, though, because I could tell this was beautifully written from the very first page. The voice of Hazel Grace Lancaster in quite arresting: sardonic, cutting to the quick, sparkling with intelligence. I work with sixteen-year-olds, and I have met very few as erudite and well-read as Hazel – but the secret is the bookish kids (like the smart-arse, pretentious teenage me) want to be like her. And it’s the bookish ones that fall in love with this book. The bookish ones fall in love with Augustus Waters, too. They learn passages by heart and make beautiful memes of quotations, because this book is also eminently quotable. John Green has practically trademarked the word ‘okay’. And why not fall in love with it? I applaud any kind of literature that inspires passionate readers.
Hazel Grace Lancaster is extraordinary because she’s been cut off from normal teenage life, having not attended school because of her illness. Her only company are her parents, and the characters from books. This, in my view, is sufficient justification for her wisdom beyond her years, and the erudite register of some of her narration is nicely contrasted with more ‘normal’ teenage life – horror movies, computer games and choosing outfits. I read that John Green wanted to convey a terminal cancer patient as human, as normal – not someone to put up on a pedestal as angelic, as an almost superhuman ‘fighter’ against invisible demons. Equally, he wanted to show us that we needn’t be frightened of cancer patients. Someone doesn’t stop being human after diagnosis. The medical drama of the book was compelling reading, though at times brutal and distressing… yet Hazel and Gus didn’t become any less themselves.
This novel was a winner for me without the cancer story, because it was a success in characterisation, pacey dialogue and portraying the minutiae of contemporary teenage life: the cornerstones of the Green style, I can tell, after reading Paper Towns, and my current read, his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. Alaska is another broken teenage girl, though her fragility stems from psychological trauma. I’m enjoying Green’s portrayal of boarding school friendships, and the ingenuity of the pranks played on so-called ‘Weekday Warriors’, the wealthy elite of Culver Creek School.
I haven’t found it as gripping as Paper Towns, though, which has all the depth of characterisation of TFIOS, with a whole load of suspense thrown in. The mystery of Margo Roth Spiegelman will have you hooked. Green describes it as a book about the dangers of idolising another person, because nobody is nearly as perfect as they seem through the rose-tinted glasses of a teenage crush. The imperfect version of Margo Roth Spiegelman is far more fascinating, anyway. Gifted with the super intelligence Green seems to bless all of his characters with, she likes to disappear, leaving clues for her loved ones that are so obscure and clever that it seems she might never be found. Quentin Jacobsen, or ‘Q’, as she calls him, is the only one who never gives up. I particularly enjoyed the friendships that developed through the search for Margo – Ben is hilarious, and popular girl Lacey has hidden depths. The road trip scenes already read very cinematically, so I can’t wait to see the film (there will be one following TFIOS, surely?).
The Green Effect, which I’m deciding to call this particular literary phenomenon, has my full support. It’s easy to be cynical about crazes in YA books – I’ve heard people dub TFIOS ‘that moany teenage book’ – but this is genuinely good writing that shouldn’t be dismissed. Like the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Pottermania, you can throw in the old adage about it ‘getting kids reading’, though I suspect the kids who are reading it would want to read anyway. At least they’re reading something of genuine quality, though. I’m already reading the effect of this in my Y11 students’ creative writing. The girls who have read the books write with ambition. They wax philosophical. They’re creative with their subtle imagery. They’re proud of their bookishness, too – and this, just maybe, is because of Hazel Grace Lancaster. She’s an inspiration to them. Like Hermione Granger before her, Hazel makes being clever cool.