I actually found John Green last year when I was trawling YouTube trying to find a short video that would encapsulate some of the most important aspects of World War I for my senior class (who were hopelessly ignorant of most current events, never mind historical ones). I found Crash Course History and was transfixed. Here was a man who includes all the basic facts I know about World War I AND includes questions about the usual Western way of looking at things (plus he throws in all kinds of cheesy puns which are practically the staple foodstuff of my teaching style).
But that is not really the story I want to tell. The reason I would recommend this book (and why it tells some of the story of my life) is that it reminded me of something about teenagers that everyone (especially teachers) should know.
As my last blog post will tell you, I had been struggling to connect with the teenagers I teach and with the whole school system. So many aspects of it do not ring true to me and actually feel like an affront to many of the principles I hold dear. Then, I helped direct a play and my whole perspective shifted. I spent hours with a small group of these teenagers and a fellow English teacher on a hodgepodge of Shakespearean scenes we put together. I would leave for school in the dark and return at 9.30 pm feeling more exhilarated than I have done for years. This is not to say that I have had an uneventful life, but rather that there is something about being involved in a play that enlarges your world and makes every moment more vivid and intense. And it was this collaborative effort with only one other adult and all these foul-mouthed boys (and two brave girls from the sister school) who could barely concentrate long enough to practise a scene without some self-created interruption that brought this intensity. I, practically a hermit who feels like an outsider in the school almost all the time, felt a little like I had found my tribe.
So when one of the actors recommended The Fault in Our Stars (after several of the boys in my other classes had said it was really good), I picked it up after our final performance, absolutely exhausted but too wired up and ecstatic to sleep. I fell headlong into it (isn’t “falling headlong” the perfect cliché to describe getting involved in a book? You start reading and then tumble, tingling brain first, into the words and worlds in the pages) and was so moved, not just by its honey of a love story, but by the way that it reminded me that teenagers are inexperienced adults that have to deal with a few more hormones. I think the fact that so many teenagers love The Fault in Our Stars is “the truth of this” (to pinch from Sydney Clouts). Take this bit of introduction by Hazel (the protagonist) about her favourite book:
“My favourite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal”.*
This is a fairly complex idea to express, and one that would be supposedly alien to teenagers who supposedly share everything (notice all those “supposedly”s? Mmmm!), but it is one which (I think) resonates with most readers, no matter what their age.
I also found it strangely challenging to read about characters who did not want to live life “zombically”, but who also affirmed the value of personal experience rather than world-wide adulation: “You say you’re not special because the world doesn’t know about you, but that’s an insult to me. I know about you”.
Finally, some people may be offended (as the Guardian’s film writer Peter Bradshaw was) by the supposed “cashing in” on a cancer-weepie about teenagers. If you read this excellent article in the New Yorker about John Green, you will see that he actually worked with terminally ill teenagers for several years and that he is very civic minded. It is then a little clearer that this is an author who puts his own experiences into his books, rather than an author who engineers fictional situations that will pull on heartstrings for cash.**
The Fault in Our Stars was a revelation to me because it reminded me of that teenage state when you are bursting with ideas but have little independence, when your world is exploding outwards at a rapid rate but you haven’t shaded in all the colours and detail yet. It reminded me of the relevance and legitimacy of the lives of others, particularly of those I teach, and that unexpected things can reveal a little more of the world to you in unexpectedly transcendent ways.
PS: I haven’t yet seen the film because I am too afraid that it will be, in Hazel’s words, “a betrayal”. Can anyone enlighten me about whether I am right to stay away?
*To my shame, I do not have a page number for this because I have a Kindle version. Amazon is an evil behemoth and I usually buy actual copies of the books I care about, but this book was a late night impulse buy.
**By the by, all the New Yorker’s articles are free for three months. You’re welcome.
***Photo source: PoChun Liu at http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-contest/2013/entries/239238/view/