'Good' YA Novels and the Magic of John Green
Tomorrow afternoon, with any luck, I'll be taking a small army of students to see the movie "The Fault in Our Stars" (hereinafter referred to as "TFIOS"), based on the critically acclaimed John Green novel of the same name. The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (My students were quick to point this out, as justification for why it should be a school-sponsored trip!), wherein Cassius tells Brutus that the fault for Caesar's tyranny is "not in our stars, but in ourselves"--the Romans have been too permissive of Caesar's rise in power. [SPOILER ALERT--SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID ANY DETAILS ABOUT "TFIOS."] Green's novel, however, concerns teens whose lives would be completely ordinary except for the fact that they have cancer, the sheer, cruel randomness of which is more easily attributable to celestial ordinance. The novel follows two main characters, Hazel Grace and Augustus, as they become friends, fall in love, visit their favorite author in the Netherlands, and battle their respective diseases.
A few months ago, when I saw that so many of my students were reading TFIOS, I realized I had to pick it up. I'd seen only a few Young Adult novels that had been so wildly popular with so many students--the most notable of which was Twilight, several years ago, followed more recently by others in that ubiquitous "supernatural YA" genre (teen vampires, teen zombies, etc.) With a few exceptions, the vast majority of the readers of these other YA novels had been female. TFIOS stood out because the boys were reading it as well. (In fact, the first three students to turn in their money for this movie trip were all guys.) I had to know what it was about this book that somehow made it able to comfortably straddle all the lines of class, ethnicity, and--perhaps the most difficult one for the YA genre--gender? (Note that I am by no means the only one to remark on the transcendent appeal of John Green's writing; The New Yorker ran a feature about him in this week's issue.)
I read TFIOS in two days over my mid-winter recess, and found myself laughing and crying in equal parts. The book succeeds, I think, in that it eschews what I've come to think of as the typical YA tropes of even some of the ones I've liked: whiny, solipsistic female protagonists; hidden, secret magic or supernatural powers (and academies to foster these talents); obsessive focus on a romantic relationship as the central story arc. In TFIOS, the romantic relationship between the protagonists serves as a lynchpin around which a greater story revolves--that of two ordinary teens in incredibly trying circumstances, facing complicated questions about the nature of existence, purpose, identity, individuality, and legacy.
TFIOS didn't have to be a YA novel, I concluded--it appealed to me as much as to my students, and marketed differently, could simply have been a regular fiction novel that happened to be about teenage protagonists. What I appreciated about the book was that it pushed the kids to contemplate "deep questions" in an enjoyable manner, without relying on the promise of a plot "payoff" in the form of sex, violence, or mythical beasts; all of these things are perfectly fine, but I don't want these to be the only ways in which my students can frame up their thinking about what good literature constitutes, or what a life well-lived looks like. The realism of John Green's books (I've since read a couple more) and his implicit assertion that teenage readers, too, might ponder age-old questions about the meaning of life in a serious, non-twee way, are what make TFIOS and his other novels stand out in the YA field. I'm happy to have my students reading them, and excited to see this film with the kids--though, as one of the guys in my AP class pointed out, we should probably bring a lot of tissues.