As someone who reads and writes children’s and YA fiction, I’ve learned to have a sense of humor when I tell people about my taste in literature. When academic programs don’t recognize the validity of what you want to write, and when pop culture in general doesn’t take your targeted demographic seriously (because it’s always cool to make fun of what teenage girls like, right?), you don’t have a choice but to grow thick skin about it. For example, sometimes truly abysmal articles such as this Slate article pop up, categorically explaining why you are childish and immature for choosing to read novels with such trifling, “simplistic” themes as struggling to confront your own mortality in the face of a seemingly apathetic universe (The Fault in Our Stars) or how to navigate all-encompassing first love while dealing with societal and family pressures (Eleanor and Park). When these articles and others like it appear, I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that people have different literary tastes. Some people like to read books about young people learning to construct their identities and the way they see the world while battling a range of antagonists, such evil wizards, life-threatening illnesses or oppressive government regimes. On the other hand, some people like to read about Proper Literary Themes like people cheating on their spouses and sexually frustrated writing professors lusting after their graduate students. To each her own.
The conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of young adult fiction is so popular right now because of the insane popularity of The Fault in Our Stars, the movie adaptation of John Green’s novel. In general, people either love The Fault in Our Stars, or they love to hate it. But with the movie’s release on June 6 and its first place debut at the box office during its opening weekend (beating Tom Cruise!), one has to think about not only what’s so appealing about this particular story, but what its meteoric rise to fame might mean for young adult fiction in general.
It’s probably worth stating for the record that as a huge John Green fan, I probably can’t actually give an objective review of the movie or the book. I haven’t read all of John Green’s books yet, but I’ve really enjoyed the ones I have. I’m also a nerdfighter–that is, a member of the community based around Vlogbrothers, the YouTube channel that John co-hosts with his brother Hank. In fact, I actually got into the YouTube videos before I got into John’s books, and it’s been cool to see the TFIOS movie go from a footnote in a YouTube video (“I’m not gonna lie to you, I’ve had my heart broken by Hollywood before, but I’m starting to think that the Fault in Our Stars movie is actually going to be a thing”) to the ridiculous cultural tour-de-force it’s become.
The Fault in Our Stars, for those of you who have somehow managed to avoid the media frenzy, is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is living with thyroid cancer. Hazel’s mother sends her to a support group, where she meets seventeen-year-old Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer survivor. The two soon become friends and fall in love.
It’s hard to describe The Fault in Our Stars without it sounding like a cheesy YA love story or, even worse, a saccharine kids-with-cancer book. But the story goes so much deeper than the little niche boxes that we love to use when talking about young adult literature. It’s not nearly as fluffy and cute as the movie trailer makes it out to be, and John Green really doesn’t pull any punches. This is not the kind of book where the brave, plucky heroine dies of her illness and we all learn lessons about being alive and not taking life for granted while looking at her beautiful corpse. Hazel and Gus are not defined by their diseases. Though they spend a decent amount of time (rightfully) worrying about what their deaths will do to their loved ones and whether or not they will be able to leave a legacy on Earth with the little time they have. They also discuss their favorite books, hide behind big words and elaborate, pretentious metaphors and help their friend Isaac (who has lost his vision due to eye cancer) get over his heartbreak by egging his horrible ex-girlfriend’s car.
The book is sacred territory to its fans, in the same way that Harry Potter is to a lot of people in our generation. I know that I’m really attached to the book, both because of how invested I am in the community surrounding it and because of the timing of my reading it. (I had lost my grandmother to cancer less than a year before reading TFIOS, and I was not coping well.) Coincidentally, the sacredness of books to their readers is a huge theme of The Fault in Our Stars. The main plot of the book is driven by Hazel’s obsession with a book called An Imperial Affliction and her and Augustus’s attempt to find a way to meet the author.
The intense attachment that fans have to this book is why, though there’s been a lot of excitement about the movie, there’s also a lot of skepticism about it. I know that I started getting nervous when I watched the first trailer, because even though I was beyond excited, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the most important lines sounded a little pretentious and stilted in the out-of-context movie clips. The book has a very snarky, tongue-in-cheek tone. What if the movie couldn’t get this to translate, and the story became exactly the kind of sappy sick-lit it is deliberately not intended to be?
Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about, because the movie was essentially a perfect adaptation. The Fault in Our Stars movie is just as funny, delightfully cheesy, heart-wrenching, and most importantly, authentic as the book. I was pleased with all of the decisions the film crew made about what to keep, what to cut, and how to play every scene, as well as with Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff for their flawless portrayals of Hazel, Augustus and Isaac. I was impressed by Ansel Elgort in particular; I knew that the other two were going to be good, but Gus is a very hard character to nail down and could have easily come off as an asshole in the movie. But Ansel Elgort, in my opinion, was a perfect Gus, from his moments of triumph (hanging out the sunroof of a limousine with the unlit cigarette dangling out of his mouth) to his moments of weakness (the gas station scene, where, as I did with the book, I became a hysterical, sobbing mess.) I was fully prepared for the movie to suck; I am so, so relieved that it not only didn’t suck, but that it was also, really, honest-to-God a good movie.
Of course, if it did suck, it wouldn’t be the first time that a YA movie adaptation didn’t go well. Since the release of the final Harry Potter book in 2007 (and of the final movie in 2011), the media has been attempting to fill the void it left. After Harry Potter came Twilight, and after Twilight came The Hunger Games. Though both were lucrative franchises–and The Hunger Games, at least, seems to have some positive staying power in pop culture–neither ever quite got to the level of Harry Potter, and people are still trying to find “the next big thing” in young adult fiction. The problem is, however, that in our attempts to discover “the next big thing,” we have a tendency to boil down the popular stories into their lowest common denominators. (“Wizards! Now vampires and werewolves! Now dystopian! Now sick-lit!”) When the deeper complexities of these stories are removed–which occasionally happens with the movies, but also when people talk about young adult fiction in general–the stories are made to seem mediocre and heartless.
People don’t like Twilight for the vampires, or The Hunger Games and Divergent for the battle scenes. They like the actual story. It’s not about whatever gimmick seems to be hot. It’s about the deeper complexities within these worlds–the interpersonal relationships, the applications to real life and the parallels to society today. The sooner all of us (the writers, the marketing teams, the movie studios, but most importantly, the audience as a whole) start treating these stories as the complex pieces of art that they are, rather than as just the next in a line of silly, trifling little stories, the more open everyone will be to the genre, and the higher quality of literature we will all begin to see.
The point is, I love young adult fiction. Yes, it can be cheesy and over-the-top, and yes, it can be unrealistic and even occasionally problematic. But YA fiction is a place for people of all ages to consider themselves and the standards by which they assess the world around them. It can be a safe space for readers to try on different versions for themselves, and it can be pure escapism for people who want to be anywhere except wherever they are.
YA of all genres is no less “serious” than literary fiction for adults just because its protagonists are young. Teenagers do not experience the world any less than adults do, and their fiction, correspondingly, is not somehow less equipped to deal with the triumphs and heartbreaks of the world. You feel the weight of your experiences just as keenly at sixteen as you do at thirty-five and seventy-two, and to imply that the thoughts of people under the age of eighteen–or the thoughts of those who are still in tune to the needs of their past, under-eighteen-year-old selves–are less sophisticated and any less worth exploring in literature is to discount the needs and perspectives of millions of people around the world. Rejecting all of young adult fiction–especially if you have deliberately not read any–is to do a disservice to YA readers and to yourself, because you are missing out on some great stories.
So let’s agree not give up on teenagers or young adult fiction yet.