"Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed,but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.' Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars." ~page 111
Anyway, I'll begin this with a long overdue review of the novel. I should start by admitting that I had ABSOLUTELY NO desire to read this book. I hadn't read John Green at all at that point (a sad oversight that I've been working on since that time), but even if I had known what a great writer he was, I still would have been reluctant to read this particular story. Everyone at school who was raving about the book would sum it up by saying that it was an amazing love story of two kids who had cancer, and that it was heartbreaking. Yuck. I was repulsed for a couple of major reasons: (1) I HATE feeling manipulated by authors, and this (very BRIEF and INADEQUATE) summary sounded like the perfect recipe for profound reader manipulation. (2) My mother died of cancer nine years ago, and while I thought (at the time) that it would be enlightening for some people to read about what cancer is like, I had my own life experience all too fresh in my memory and did not feel that I needed any help understanding it.
But then the faculty book club at school selected the novel, and I found myself reading it despite my objections. I'm SO GLAD I did.
It's true that it's a book about two teens who have cancer--but really it's a book about two brilliant, hilarious, painfully teenager-y kids who are trying to figure out life just like everyone else. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are two phenomenal young people, and they remind me so much of some of the amazing teenagers I've had the chance to know and work with over the past ten years--infinitely intelligent, snarky and optimistic, frighteningly unaware of the larger world. Hazel and Gus also have an obsession with an author, which leads them on all kinds of adventures. They are complex but loveable, and they live and love and discover so much that we, the readers, can't help but experience their adventures and suffering with them. Both Hazel and Gus suffer, but it is precisely their understanding of their illness that makes them such kindred spirits:
"Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile." (Green 213-14)
John Green does a phenomenal job of showing the inglorious nature of illness--the way that it strips people of even the honor of dying with dignity. He shows the profound impact sickness has on relationships, and the way that people (especially children) who are sick are isolated from the rest of the world by imaginary lines they can neither entirely understand nor control. But what I love most about this novel is that Green does not write a story about cancer; he writes a story about two teenagers who fall in love. It's a remarkable journey, and amazingly uplifting. More than my own testimony, I judge the success of this novel by the innumerable students who have read and passed along the single copy I own. As a testament to the well-loved nature of the book, notice the tattered edges of the cover in the image above. They all love it; lots of them are counting down to the release of the film in this coming June.
Reasons to teach this novel (and activities you might want to do with it):
- It would work phenomenally well with lit circles (so that not everyone has to read it). It's high interest and reads quickly, but it could work nicely among a selection of YA books for readers with different areas of interest.
- The Socratic Discussions that could come from this book would be remarkable. If I were to lead a discussion of this novel, I'd have them prepare by creating their own questions related to the issues that the novel addresses (five questions would probably be plenty--this works really well for high interest novels to which students can relate). Then I'd have them go through the novel to find textual support and plot examples that they thought would be relevant.
- There is a film coming out this summer! If you read my blog routinely, you know how much I love using film clips as a way to discuss audience and purpose and as a way to analyze interpretations of characters.
- Of any book I've read about sickness, this novel does the best job of portraying sick people as real people, and of showing how sickness impacts everyone involved.
- The themes that Green presents in this novel are vast and complex, and the possibilities for exploration are endless. (i.e. the role of fate in people's lives and deaths, the brutality and ingloriousness of illness, the cruelty of time, the perseverance of the human spirit.... This list goes on.)
- It is so literary! There are many allusions, and the dialogue is witty. The syntax is complex. This novel works well for analysis and is much "deeper" than many of the high interest YA novels. This would be a great novel to use as practice for style emulation if you wanted to teach students about voice or about sentence variety or character creation.
- It is beautiful: profound, quotable, poignant, infinitely readable. After all, don't we want our students to learn to love language?
- It's self-reflexive: Green is leery of the "cancer genre," and during Hazel's narration, she constantly refers to reality and the way it is different from the conventions of the genre.
- It would pair nicely with a traditional text about star-crossed lovers. In my school, we could pair it with Romeo and Juliet, but the possibilities abound. It would also pair well with nonfiction pieces about people's experiences with cancer and informational texts about illness and its effects.
"You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect." ~page 112