I’m not as in tune with the Young Adult book world as I used to be, back when I worked in a library in Upstate New York and hung out with the teen librarian on my slow Thursday night shifts. This book I’m going to tell you that you must, absolutely must read, was not on my radar five days ago even though it’s been on the best seller lists for a ridiculously long time.
It’s called The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green, and either you’ve read its reviews, read it yourself, or have a teen in your house who has read it. Or, not unlike me, until this very moment you had never even heard of it.
I read a lot. I mainly dig into non-fiction stuff. Memoir is my genre of choice, but I love learning new ways to look at the world so overall I stick pretty close to reading stuff that’s true. Every once in a great while I dive into a novel, if someone I trust recommends it and if the premise sounds interesting enough. But in general, I figure that if it isn’t true, what’s the use?
Then a book like this one falls on my lap. I’m not exaggerating to say this book changed my life. A book that’s not even true changed my life. Trippy, right? It has been stuck so tightly to my brain in the three days since I finished it that I was forced to do some research and start asking around about it. The more I uncovered, the more I loved this book.
This book relies a lot on events that, if I explain them in detail, will truly spoil the experience for you. So let me say, up front, there will be no spoilers here. I care too much about this book, and how it might change your life too, to allow that happen.
Instead I will break down in a few brief comments why I think it would be in your best interest to find yourself a copy of this book (if you are parenting a teen there may even be a school library copy already in your house) and dig in.
1) Let’s get the hard stuff out of the way. This book is about three kids who meet in a kid’s cancer support group, where two of them begin to fall for each other. Yeah, I know. Depressing and sad, right out of the gate. Not for me, you’re thinking. But please stay with me.
This book is an inspection of life. It’s a peek into the world of these three kids, who have a bit more on their plate than the average teenager, and they react according to their personalities. And, lucky for us, they are all pretty much smart asses when allowed to be. They are funny, witty, and fun to hang out with. They just happen to have cancer. Yes, it’s a sad book. If you have a heart beating in your chest (and a child you love tucked into a bed in your house), you will cry. But I promise you will also laugh. And come out the other side a different person.
2) It’s a yummy gooey love story. No, the characters are not yummy and gooey. They are as realistic as teenagers come in literature (and real life) today. But the feelings are perfectly felt. There is clever flirting, balanced so perfectly with occasional health and life setbacks. These kids deal with cancer while living their lives, the cancer is not in charge.
This is a book I would have eaten up as a teenager, wishing some cute boy (who happened to have cancer) would flirt with me, pursue me, and make me feel special, like the character Gus in the book.
3) I have to throw this in somewhere. The main character in the book has an artificial leg. And it’s no big deal. It’s just a part of who he is, like the color of his eyes or the wave in his hair. As an amputee myself I appreciate this detail. There are moments in the book where you are reminded of his “difference”, like when he is slower to get up off the ground after a picnic, but it doesn’t define him. For 99.9% of the story, it’s a non-issue. I love that millions of people are devouring this book and making peace with the fact that an artificial leg doesn’t have to define a person. A personal thank you, from me to you, Mr. John Green.
4) This book is smart. I’m a writer but my own personal education is sorely lacking in what I’d call the classics. This book is full of references to famous poems and classic literary works. They are perfectly and realistically woven in, just enough for an expert to appreciate, but not enough to confuse a classic lit novice like me. In fact, it made me want to stop and take careful consideration of the parts I didn’t take to naturally, so I could feel them and understand them better before I moved on. Even the title comes from a quote of Shakespeare, the meaning of which I can’t explain without backing out of that promise I made to you about spoilers.
5) This is one of those books that is full of lines and paragraphs that you want to go back and read them over again. They are just so beautiful and perfectly placed that you’ll want to write them down. Then you realize it would only make you remember that part of the book, which will make you sad, and you have just got to stop feeling sad about kids who don’t even exist in the real world.
Just an example, which is beautiful, even if you’ve not read the book and aren’t fully invested in these characters:
After she’s tried so hard to fight having feelings for Gus, because she cares for him too much to hurt him if she gets worse, Hazel listens to him read a passage from one of her favorite books and shares with us, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” (Swoon….refer back to number 2 above)
6) Now to the part about how it changed my life and might just change yours. I’ve always been a person who appreciates life. Growing up surrounded by foster siblings, I was intimately aware of how lucky I was to have a safe home and loving parents. A trip to build orphanages in Haiti when I was 15 locked in my gratitude, when I saw what true poverty looks like.
But life sometimes clips on. There are work deadlines, personal expectation deadlines, kids with never ending needs, and pets that know the exact right time to throw up a hairball on the living room couch. It can eat the life-thankfulness out of the best of us. We know we should be grateful. With all of our head we know. But sometimes it takes a minor reboot to remind our hearts.
The kids in this book, kids who have no guarantee that they’ll ever get to worry about paying a car payment or helping a toddler through the flu, try to find peace with the little bit of an unstable promise they have for the future. They don’t worry about the years ahead, they hope and beg for a few extra days and (God willing) months ahead. And in the process, take in stride the terrible side effects cancer threw their way (like damaged lungs and loss of limbs).
Don’t misunderstand me. These characters are not just characters. They very quickly become real children to you. It helps that their parents are represented fully, in all of the despair and confusion that must come when you have a child with cancer. But these kids are not mini Mother Theresas. They are normal teens, who get ticked off and like to smart off to their elders every now and then.
But just watching their journeys, you slowly come to see what life looks like, when you are not guaranteed another handful of years. Not guaranteed the chance to live through teen angst that inevitably leads to a handful of rocky years in your 20s as you find your place in the world. Their tomorrow is not guaranteed. And most of them wouldn’t even dream of ever being a full-fledged grownup.
It almost makes me appreciate the bills I must balance this month, and that list of household chores a mile long that never seems to get done. Because, by golly, I’m here to do those things. If I watch what I eat and look both ways when I cross the street, I have a good chance of having a few more decades left. I don’t take it for granted on purpose. I just don’t have to live with the idea that those years won’t ever happen for me.
Reading this book, and knowing these kids, you start to see what it must be like to have an expiration date drawing near and what you’d do if you truly knew it was all almost over.
In the past three days I’ve taken the time to stop what I was doing, turn my head, and look my 12-year-old in the face, as he wanted to share a very long, convoluted story about something that happened at school. I’ve pulled up a few of my favorite music videos on You Tube and allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy them, before I pulled up the more sinister web sites that led to getting my to do list done. I didn’t beat myself up, that I should be doing this or that… I just sat back in my office chair and even closed my eyes a couple of times, soaking in the music that makes me happy. I allowed myself to feel joy deliberately.
I’ve stopped seeing the creation of dinner as a chore that just takes me away from the things I really want to do or the things I should be doing (like just one more load of laundry). I see it as a time to be still with myself, and chop veggies and stir noodles as an act of love for the people I love and care about. A way that I get to take care of them, because I’m here, and I’m healthy and able.
7) Let’s make this my last point. I’m not the only one who gets this message, loud and clear, from this entertaining, heartbreaking book about some kids who happen to have cancer. As I read this book in public, I had more than a few people comment as they walked by, “Great book! I’ve read that!” And I’m not just talking grownups. I’m talking a lot of teenagers.
I love that teens are reading this story and getting many of the same things I’ve gotten out of it, but in their own brand. The exposure to good storytelling, great character development, and funny writing is all good and well. But seeing life with new eyes can be downright life-saving in the teen years.
One dad, a friend of mine, stopped to sit next to me in the Recreation Center lobby where I was devouring chapter after chapter, and he shared with me that his daughter had read it. He dropped the level of his voice to almost a whisper, and then honestly shared with me how his teen daughter was struggling so painfully with bullying. School officials were doing all they could, but there wasn’t much real relief. Then she read this book. Suddenly she was talking to him about how there was a bigger life out there for her, some day, when silly middle school was over. And she started to see that she could live outside of that ring of torment that seemed to find her every time she walked through the school halls. This dad was deeply grateful for a silly little book about a few kids with cancer.
Before I run out of space I have to tell you that this story came from the experiences that Mr. Green had as a hospital chaplain in a children’s hospital. It came from the real life of a little girl he really knew, who died of cancer at sixteen and stirred something so deep in him that he had to get her personality on paper. Trust me, once you read the book, these details will matter to you.
Until then, know this about Mr. Green—he worked so hard on writing a sound, funny, logical book that he couldn’t see it was a sad book until they started filming the movie version and he saw the scenes being acted out in front of him. According to his own Twitter account, he regularly cries on set.
It’s that well written. It’s that well thought out. It’s that worth reading for yourself.