YA Superstar: John Green

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If you stopped a random person on the street and asked him or her to name a YA author, you'd mostly likely get a response of "J.K. Rowling" or "Stephenie Meyer." Actually, you're most likely to get no response at all, since some people don't know what YA stands for, and others don't talk to strangers because of those scary PSAs from the '80s with men in trench coats driving sketchy vans.

The point is, the majority of the planet is aware of Rowling and Meyer, thanks to the massive success of their books. But I would argue that the biggest celebrity in YA today doesn't write about wizards or vampires. He doesn't have a billion dollar movie deal in the bag, nor has he been knighted (although many people, including myself, think he should be). Like his characters, he's an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. And his name is John Green.

I would argue that the biggest celebrity in YA today doesn't write about wizards or vampires Like his characters, he's an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. And his name is John Green.

Born in 1977, Green grew up in Florida and graduated from Kenyon College in 2000. I still have a hard time understanding how someone who finished college only a year before I did has already managed to publish five books. Either Green is a literary genius or I'm just incredibly lazy. (Both are probably true.) He published his first book, Looking for Alaska, in 2005, and immediately won a Printz Award, an amazing achievement for a debut author. And the hits just kept on coming, with An Abundance of Katherines (2006), Paper Towns (2008), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010, co-written by David Levithan) and, most recently, The Fault In Our Stars (2012).

While each story is unique, all of Green's books sparkle with the same charm and wonderfully eccentric characters. But, in my opinion, the key to his appeal is that, in spite of their quirkiness, his heroes and heroines struggle with challenges to which any reader can relate. Their problems range from the common (heartbreak) to the tragic (cancer), and yet their journeys are always authentic. His novels offer a way to escape while never losing a connection to the human experience.

While I adore all of his work, I'm extremely partial to Will Grayson, Will Grayson and The Fault in Our Stars. In the former, Green partnered with David Levithan (another YA genius) to tell the story of two boys named Will Grayson. One is straight and one is gay, and both are incredibly confused. But the real star of the book is Tiny Cooper.

Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large.

Tiny is a perfect example of how Green creates dynamic, slightly hyperbolic characters and uses them to reveal universal truths. Tiny is loud and proud, but, like any teenager, he still worries about being loved and accepted.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson demonstrates Green's ability to tackle adolescent issues without resorting to cliche, but the real proof of this gift is The Fault in Our Stars. With this novel, Green accomplished a magnificent feat: he wrote a book about cancer that made me laugh even more than it made me cry. This isn't your garden variety Nicholas Sparks tearjerker, although I definitely recommend keeping some tissue at hand. Featuring Green's first ever female narrator, this story is deeply honest and intensely funny, and stereotypes appear for the sole purpose of being mocked by the main characters.

On Wednesday during American Poetry for Dummies 101, I got a text from Augustus:

Isaac out of surgery. It went well. He's officially NEC.

NEC meant "no evidence of cancer." A second text came a few seconds later.

I mean, he's blind. So that's unfortunate.

The story strikes a beautifully delicate balance between tragedy and comedy, and I love it so much, I even used a section of it for a reading at my wedding.

John Green's works have earned him a place among the greatest writers of my generation, but it's his online presence that makes him a YA celebrity. Together with his brother, Hank, Green carries on YouTube conversations under the banner of Vlogbrothers, and his charisma and wonderfully geeky sense of humor are on full display on his website. After watching videos like this one, it's easy to see why Green has legions of devoted fans collectively known as Nerdfighters.

If you haven't yet read any of Green's books, I hope I've persuaded you to check him out. And if you are familiar with this work, feel free to tell us your favorites in the comments. And if the literary world ever builds a YA Walk of Fame, I'll be the first to nominate John Green for a huge, shining star.

Image of Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green
Price: $8.77
Publisher: Penguin Books (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 221 pages
Image of The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Price: $10.99
Publisher: Dutton Books (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 318 pages
Sarah Pitre

Column by Sarah Pitre

Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse and coordinates events at The Highball, a playground for adults. Tired of feeling like a creepy old lady in the bookstore YA section, she created Forever Young Adult to provide grown-ups with a community where they can gush about young adult literature without shame. In addition to crushing on fictional teenage boys, Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and macaroni and cheese.

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Comments

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life June 28, 2012 - 12:55pm

John Green seems like a cool guy. I like his books, but I love his vlogs, they crack me up.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life June 28, 2012 - 12:55pm

John Green seems like a cool guy. I like his books, but I love his vlogs, they crack me up.

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote June 28, 2012 - 6:12pm

I adore Hank Green, I've been watching his SciShow vlogs on YouTube for awhile now.  I haven't seen any footage of John yet, or read any of his books.  My husband just sent a copy of "Looking for Alaska" to me so we can read it together.  Although we're both writing YA stories right now, he does not normally read YA.  He recently read "The Fault in our Stars" and "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" and loved both.  He mentioned that John is one of the only authors he's aware of whose thought processes are very exposed in his writing style.  Thanks for the article!

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 July 1, 2012 - 8:07am

I had never been much of a YA enthusiast before I had to take a class in college on YA Lit and "Looking for Alaska" was one of the books that I had to read. I loved every page of it and, at the end of the term, ended up keeping the book for my personal collection. I'm very excited to pick up another of his books in the near future. 

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote July 3, 2012 - 8:20pm

I just finished reading "Looking For Alaska" and really enjoyed it.  I also like the inclusion of web addresses to contact John included in the end.  It's a nice personal touch and totally appropriate considering how tied into the vlog/interwebs community he is.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 10, 2012 - 5:37am

Paper Towns is my favorite book by him. Well, that I've read by him. I lived in Winter Park, Florida when I was 18 and was familiar with the real places he featured in the book. I still have to read The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines. Which are on my summer reading list. I work with high school students and always tell them to read his books too. Haven't decided if I should teach one of them, but I kind of want to. One of my co-workers taught Looking For Alaska with The Catcher in the Rye, she said it helped the students better understand the classic novel.