Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars and "Transcending" YA

Let me tell you a story about The Fault in our Stars by John Green.

When I was 11 years old, my brother was diagnosed with bone cancer. A tumor grew on his spine, pressing on his spinal cord and paralyzing him. The next year and a half, my little family went through hell. It was me, Mom, and Matt, and there were 39 blood transfusions, 31 surgeries, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation, which fried his throat to the point he couldn't eat, and had to have a feeding tube installed (the doctors let him starve for a few months first, the bastards), and he died once on the operating table to be resuscitated with paddles. It's nothing short of a miracle that he's still alive.

So naturally, when I head about TFioS, I had to read it.

If you haven't heard of it, (or perhaps are blind, deaf and without internet, in which case, how are you reading this?) it's a story of a young girl named Hazel Lancaster, who has terminal cancer. The tumors are lodged in her lungs, though she's been granted a few extra years thank to an experimental drug. In a support group for cancer patients, Hazel meets Augustus Waters, a boy who lost his leg to cancer. In essence, the plot seems trite: girl meets boy, girl doomed to die, and together they fall in love, discover truths about life, dying, and being remembered, and set out to meet the author of their favorite book.

It was hard to read, but also freeing. Through Hazel, I saw things as my 15-year-old brother must have as he spent month after month dying in the hospital. More than that, Hazel let me glimpse something I never had before: how my mom must have felt. I started to understand what it must've been like to have a child with cancer, instead of a sibling.

After I read the book, I wasn't quite sure how to put my feelings into words. Stars has amazing crossover potential, but it's also firmly rooted in YA, showing off the best parts of the category, and why I devote myself to it. I spent a few days quietly mulling over it before, one evening with my mother, I told her I wanted her to read it.

My mother is not a reader. She reads, but probably one book a year, maybe two. This was the first book I've asked her to read, because I know although I love my books, she doesn't have the same tastes as me. Stars was different, though. I knew she had to read it, partly because it was a cancer book, but also because I thought she needed to read it. As it helped me understand her, I hoped it would help her understand Matt better, and some of the things he experienced.

When I asked her, she said she'd love to, but as I explained the plot of the book, her face drained of color. Before I finished, she was in tears. She said to me, "What are you doing? Are you trying to tell me something?"

I, of course, had no idea what she was talking about.

Then she told me she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from our year and a half from hell. She won't touch cancer books or movies. Not to say she avoids the subject, but it's certainly something she doesn't often talk about. We talked for a while then, and I learned a few things Stars couldn't teach me, things only my mother knew.

After that, something even more amazing happened: she read the book.

I'd hoped she would be blown away and it would spark a wonderful conversation about our shared experiences. It... did not. After my mother finished the book, she didn't talk about it for weeks, aside from answering, "Oh, it was good," whenever I asked her about it.

This past weekend, my grandparents came down to visit with us, and while we were gathered around the table talking, my mother brought up The Fault in our Stars. She explained the plot to my grandmother, and talked about the book with gusto. I've never seen my mother talk about a book like this. She went on to tell me how she spent that weekend reading and crying her eyes out. Her least favorite scene? The gas station scene. Something very similar almost killed my brother once, too.

Then, like watching some inspirational film, my mother said, "I think you should read it."

And my ADHD grandmother, whose worse for reading than my mother, said, "Okay," and took the book home with her.

Green's book is powerful. It's life-changing. More importantly, it's a good story. Shortly after reading, I saw a review of TFioS, in which the author wrote: "The book is being pitched as Green’s breakthrough out of the young-adult ghetto and to a wider audience..."

The insult aside, this review got me thinking. When the book was released, a lot of people were talking about its crossover appeal, as well as saying that it "transcended the YA category." It was better and above anything else in YA. Most of these comments seemed to come from individuals who didn't read YA much, so the bit of prejudice is sad, but not surprising.

After spending my time trying to put my thoughts about this book into words, I felt this story better explains the power of a book like this. Yes, The Fault in our Stars appeals to readers young and old. Does it overshadow our "YA ghetto?" No, just the opposite. Stars illustrates everything good about YA. It opens the category up to people who turned their noses down on us.

Does the Fault in our Stars transcend YA? No, it IS YA, with every awkward bumble, every shy smile, every time Hazel lives life and learns from it. It's a book of firsts and learning the hard way the tragedies of life. Some would like to take TFioS from us, but just because something's good doesn't mean it's no longer children's fiction.

TFioS is a universal story. It's a tale with powerful emotions behind it. It comes from the pages and pulls it from the reader. It doesn't turn off certain readers due to particular taste. It's a very plain story at it's base, but the things it addresses are those every human deals with at some point in their life. We all wonder, "What will happen after I die? Will I be remembered?" and though TFioS doesn't have the answers, it makes us feel not so alone in wondering about them.



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