Is it any wonder that John Green is perhaps the “hottest” Young Adult writer on the literary landscape today? Not only does he write novels that appeal to teens but, along with his brother Hank, he unveiled Brotherhood 2.0, a video blog project where they would forgo all text-based communications and interact solely via “vlogs” – posted for public consumption on YouTube – for an entire year (2007). The “Vlogbrothers” continued after 2007, with lots of interaction with their fans (known as “nerdfighters”) and a wonderfully wacky and informative vlog series known as Truth or Fail. Their catchphrase, DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), resonates.
So why is author John Green such a hit with teens? It’s pretty simple, actually. He writes for them, with an honest and quirky voice that rings genuine, and kids respond to that. His characters are unforgettable, but they also are absolutely believable – they could easily be walking the halls of any high school, or hanging out at any mall, or sitting quietly in a corner reading a book. And the things that these kids are dealing with are the normal, everyday but quite extraordinary things that kids really do deal with every day: fitting in, being real, helping each other.
That being said, Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars is not exactly your typical kid living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at age 13 (“thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs”), she barely survived a year later when her lungs suddenly filled with fluid. Due to an experimental drug, the tumors that invaded her lungs shrank and have miraculously held steady for three years. Still, her cancer is terminal and she knows it’s only a matter of time before the tumors grow again and there will be a point of no return.
Not exactly the rosiest of beginnings. But one of the remarkable things about The Fault in Our Stars is that even with the sobering situation anchoring the story, the tone is not maudlin or cloying – it’s real. Hazel is realistic but not fatalistic. Death is a constant possibility, but it does not haunt her every movement or occupy her every thought. Yet it’s not hidden or pushed aside, either. When it does crop up, it is met head on, matter of factly, if not always graciously. And often, very often, it is met with a humor that transcends – for The Fault in Our Stars, with its tragic subject matter and “you know where this is going” ending, is also filled with humor, sometimes gentle, and sometimes cutting, but always true.
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.
Home schooled and taking a few college classes, Hazel’s main social circle is the cancer Support Group that she attends sporadically in the basement of the local Episcopal church. One week she meets hunky, athletic looking newcomer Augustus Waters, who is attending the meeting in support of a mutual friend who is facing surgery that will leave him blind. Augustus has had “a touch of osteosarcoma” (a highly curable bone cancer) that nevertheless left him with a prosthetic leg. He is immediately smitten with Hazel, seeing her as beautiful even with her ever present oxygen tank and cannula tube. She is dubious but something in Augustus’ manner wins her over. And thus our story begins.
May I see you again?” he asked. There was an endearing nervousness in his voice.
I smiled. “Sure.”
“Tomorrow?” he asked.
“Patience, grasshopper,” I counseled. “You don’t want to seem overeager.
“Right, that’s why I said tomorrow,” he said. “I want to see you again tonight. But I’m willing to wait all night and much of tomorrow.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious,” he said.
“You don’t even know me,” I said. I grabbed the book from the center console. “How about I call you when I finish this?”
“But you don’t even have my phone number,” he said.
“I strongly suspect you wrote it in this book.”
He broke out into that goofy smile. “And you say we don’t know each other.
But it would be wrong to classify The Fault in Our Stars as a teen romance novel. Yes, the relationship between Hazel and Augustus takes center stage. But even more than that, it’s the story of two kids who are carefully and beautifully dancing between life and death, with all the questions and fears and joys that lie therein.
‘Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.
How Hazel and Gus respond to each other, their families and friends, and how they respond to the challenges put before them (medical and not) and their disappointments, how they react to their burgeoning relationship and the occasional pleasant surprises that are also a part of everyday life, is a story that will not only resonate with all ages, but will stick with you for a long time. And that’s a tribute to not only John Green’s story and characters, but also in how well he writes: with wit and heart and an understanding of not just young adults, but everyone. While it may not necessarily have a fairy tale ending, The Fault in Our Stars is one that you will not want to miss, no matter who you are.
~ Sharon Browning