I’ve always liked John Green. He’s a nice guy.* He makes incredibly funny and informative videos with his brother, Hank. He’s something of a master of the Teenaged Boy Likes Enigmatic, Semi-Crazy Girl genre. Plus, he has a connection to Birmingham, since his first novel, Looking for Alaska, is at least partly inspired by his time at Indian Springs School.
But I have a confession. I’ve always liked Green’s novels, but I’ve never really loved them — never spent hours glued to the couch because I couldn’t tear myself away from the characters. They’re just so teenage-boy angsty, so (to use the nauseatingly clichéd comparison) Catcher in the Rye-ish, so male. I expect this is what makes them good novels, but, for me, something got lost in gender translation.
So I was surprised that Green’s new novel, The Fault of Our Stars, the story of a group of teenage kids with cancer (sounds majorly uplifting, I know) has a female protagonist. For the first couple of chapters, I was worried for Green as a writer. Worried that he couldn’t pull off writing as a girl. Worried that the novel would slide into 200 pages of pure depression or, worse, culminate in a clichéd happy ending.
I needn’t have worried. Green’s characters are funny, believable and compelling. His protagonist, Hazel, is smart, witty and fully human … she also happens to be a believable female. Since most of these characters have cancer, they’re forced to live every day with varying degrees of tragedy and sacrifice, forced to ask real questions about what it means to die and, by extension, what it means to live.
These are questions that most teenagers struggle with, even when they’re healthy. They probably won’t talk about it, and they may not admit it, but it’s a rare teen who doesn’t question whether their parents (or their church or their school or their insert-authority-figure-here) really have it figured out, whether or not their life is worthwhile, whether they’ll die without ever having sex.
The fact that Green refuses to ignore these questions is part of what makes him a good YA writer. But it’s his commitment to searching for real answers instead of settling for false hope and cheap happy endings, and his willingness to admit that, sometimes, there are no answers, that makes him a great one.
We have a few signed copies of The Fault in Our Stars at the shop. Come see us in Crestline Village to pick one of for yourself and for your favorite angsty teenager.
* I know he’s a nice guy because he visited us at Jonathan Benton, Bookseller once. He was super friendly and signed our stock without mentioning how disorganized we were.