Saturday, July 7, 2012

My Summer with John Green and YA

Most teachers do not read a ton of books,* I think.

That's a terrible admission, but the truth is that the school year is so all-consuming it leaves little time for outside reading.  Still, being an English teacher means the love of reading is a pre-requisite, so a book is always on the nightstand, even if there is only time for 10 or 15 minutes before the eyes slam shut.

When I began silent sustained reading for my students more than a dozen years ago, reading for pleasure became a part of the work day (Yay!  What's not to love?) and Young Adult (YA) novels a source to be mined--but rarely a favorite.  

Raised on Madeline L'Engle and Ray Bradbury, Harry Potter was a huge letdown--no thanks.  The horror genre never appealed, zombies and love affairs with vampires seem silly.  Most YA books are wrapped around the struggle du jour: bulimia, divorce, teen pregnancy, car wrecks. Jodi Piccoult rips plots from recent sensationalist headlines and the over-the-top, cavalier behavior of her teens makes me worry, and sometimes fear, for those sitting in the classroom.

I keep a list (back of the teaching journal and in the Notes app on the phone) for books to read. I watch what the students read. (Recently finished a book that kept a reluctant reader enthralled, so I had to read it myself.)  I take recommendations.  Then, each night as I take home my assigned reading--student papers--I try to ignore the growing pile reserved for breaks.  

My Advanced Placement students and I have the same complaint: No time to read for fun.

This year, around Christmas break I cracked open my first John Green YA novel: Looking for Alaska, recommended probably four years ago. (Thanks Nicole Hackman) 


If writing means telling the truth, John Green gets it right.  In spite of schoolwork, I sped on to his current best-seller The Fault in Our Stars --number one on the New York Times bestseller list for seven consecutive weeks--devouring it in two days.  

I left these in the front of the room to convince students to "Just try this one. You'll love it."  (Talking with students about shared books is a career highlight.)

Since then, I set aside his other books, Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherinesto read for the summer.  Both were just completed in the "I can't wait to get back to my book" frame of mind.

What's to love about a John Green novel?  Lots.  

The characters in his book seem real to me, reflecting the majority of teens I work with everyday. They are funny, a bit nerdy, and on the cusp of adulthood, always in that nether-space between home and the rest of the world.  They work through everyday problems with wit, the kind of wit that makes figuring out how to be human a bit cool, even for nerds.  

His pacing is excellent -- some unresolved issue drags us clear to the end--an end that does NOT culminate in the perfect prom date, though milestone events are not ignored. Every book makes me laugh out loud.  The first two had me crying, for real. 

Other things to love:  Green's characters have everyday lives--the kind of life a real American teen lives everyday.  They have homework to do.  Classes take up the majority of their time, stretching a developing problem into weeks.  Cars break down, get wrecked, or don't exist.  There is a fair amount of drinking--and drunkenness--and swearing.  And there is some lying to authority figures, sneaking around, acknowledgment of painful screw-ups, and self-centered observations.  But events are not shrugged off.  The characters think about how choices turn out.   

One favorite aspect of the books is the relationship between the protagonist and the parents. (There is always a mom and a dad--who must be telephoned to account for whereabouts etc.).  Their presence is a loving one, coupled with the usual misunderstandings between generations and a fair amount of eye-rolling observations by the kid. Though not a central feature, the parents are a constant, tangential background noise, just like real life.

Finally, there is hope and love between the central group of friends, expressed in the way teens love each other: punching, inside jokes, nicknames.  Still, they also have major complaints about each other, even fights.  I'm only guessing, but I think most teens would find their inner lives acknowledged in print.  These kids represent the vast majority of kids that go unnoticed: regular kids growing up.

After reading all four books (everyone an award winner of some sort), I think Green may have run through his store of coming-of-age books.  But these are YA novels that manage to draw an adult back into this painful but rich time of life to remember with clarity how much was learned from all the screw ups, fights, lies, and revelations.  That's a real gift.  

If it's been a long time since you thought about those years, try one of these.  It's a good reminder for all of us that being an adolescent is a really important time of life.

*Just to compare, my daughter, a veterinarian has lots of time for reading--no homework, downtime between patients.  My gastro doc also shares his current reads with me.  I suffer pangs of envy during these conversations and do not admit that I have not kept up with my reading.  Irony alert: English teachers amongst them all probably have the least amount of time for reading.


  1. Just read TFIOS this summer after hearing about it from students. Loved it. I want to write like that! He is also an Internet sensation--as part of the vlogbrothers on Youtube with his brother Hank, and he also does a Crash Course in History videos, also on Youtube that are amazing. Check it out!

  2. @jmdavis I share your view! When I read the books I thought "Dang! Wish I'd written these." :-)