In 2007, over Christmas holiday, I returned home to Windsor after my first term of senior year of university.
My sister, Niki, though seven years my junior, has always been a close friend and someone with whom I have an easy bond. I get great joy from our friendship and how it has strengthened and evolved as we learn more about who we are.
By happenstance that December, then 14-year-old Niki and I stumbled upon brothers named John and Hank Green. John and Hank, separated by distance, filmed daily videos to one another to stay close through a new medium. Niki and I quickly drew to these brothers, their quirky and hilarious personalities, and sweet friendship; perhaps we saw ourselves reflected in them. We watched the entire VlogBrothers archives during that break. And over the years, we remained fans, tuning in here and again to see what they were up to.
The best gift of stumbling upon those videos was finding John Green the author. John is a writer who creates dimensional characters, who is infinitely quotable and who makes you a more thoughtful human through his words. Niki and I devoured his books and enjoyed being part of a community who banded around his talent.
John is a Young Adult (YA) author. He writes fiction, for teenagers, full of difficult emotions and difficult lessons. Much commentary of late has dissected our collective adult obsession with YA, both cheeringly and derisively. I’d contend that this genre has a legitimate place on the adult bookshelf. John and his contemporaries aren’t writing the next impossible novel. But many of these books are challenging and worthwhile all the same. So many have responded to John’s work because he has a way of distilling and filtering the complexity of human emotion into characters we understand — and human emotion transcends age brackets.
I’ve always appreciated John’s argument through writing that we ought to give young people a better chance — that they are smart enough to understand difficult realities and crappy endings. John writes for teenagers as thinking beings who get all this, maybe even better than adults do. As someone who’s known two sisters as teenagers most of my adult life, I can attest that they are more than intelligent, that they grapple through with nuance and care and understanding. For us grown-ups, we get to filter our reading through the lens of the kids we were then, if only we knew then what we do now (written with tongue firmly in cheek). Time makes us kinder, gentler and sometimes it helps us to reach present resolution.
In 2012, John’s fourth novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was optioned to much fanfare. The movie adaptation, starring the affable and beautiful and unassuming Shailene Woodley, is set to become the summer’s blockbuster romance. It’s a book about two teenagers whose “little infinity” is shorter than most, because they both have cancer, and it’s about the friendship and love that carries them through their typical-teenage-but-not-really lives. Niki and I were so excited to follow John’s book made real to a massive audience, to celebrate an author whose words have helped us through, and to know so many others would benefit of his story.
Yesterday we watched the film on its opening night. It was full circle, in some ways, to be with my no-longer-a-teenager sister, ready to learn from John, not on a little screen in my childhood bedroom, but through a much bigger screen, in my adult hometown. We were grown ups in a theatre, with young (and old) people all around us. Teenagers (and adults) who believed in Hazel and Augustus’ story, even though it wasn’t poetic or fair or easy.
This theatre was filled with the potential and the promise of young people who are grappling through. This theatre was filled with adults like me, learning from the potential and promise of young people who are grappling through.
Further reading on the surge of the Young Adult genre
The Adult Lessons of YA Fiction, Julie Beck for The Atlantic (June 2014)
Against YA, Ruth Graham for Slate (June 2014)
The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean, Jen Doll for Vulture (October 2013)
(Photo: Bay, my own)