Children's Corner: 'The Fault in Our Stars' a tour de force about teenage cancer


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As a student chaplain at a children's hospital years ago, John Green spent his days at the intersection of life and death, working with terminally ill children and their families.

"To see young people die and their families torn apart, it was just devastating," Mr. Green said in a recent telephone interview from his Indianapolis home.

While the five-month experience convinced him that he wasn't cut out to be a minister, it also continued to haunt him. Now an award-winning -- and hugely popular -- young-adult novelist, Mr. Green tried numerous times over the years to write a book based on his student-chaplain days.

For 10 years, he struggled to write a book that wasn't "sentimental and self-indulgent," he said, laughingly adding that his early efforts featured a "22-year-old dashingly handsome chaplain who was also a drunkard."

Then he met a terminally ill teen named Esther Earl, who was among the many fans of the "Nerdfighters" social-media website ( http://nerdfighters.ning.com/ ), which was founded by Mr. Green and his brother Hank Green. Esther, who fought a four-year battle with thyroid cancer, died at the age of 16 in 2010.

"Knowing Esther helped to draw me out of the story, and that was hugely important," Mr. Green said. "I don't even think that it had as much to do with her illness, but about the fact that Esther was an uncommonly empathetic person, particularly for a teenager.

"The inspiration she gave me was not about her illness, it was about her empathy."

With that inspiration, Mr. Green wrote "The Fault in Our Stars" (Dutton, $17.99, ages 12 up). It's a novelistic tour de force, a book in which Mr. Green takes the impossibly grim subject of teenage cancer and creates a story that is, by turns, hilarious, joyous, outrageous and utterly sad.

Dedicated to Esther Earl, "The Fault in Our Stars" details the romance of two teens -- Hazel, whose terminal cancer has been temporarily halted by a new wonder drug; and Gus, a cancer survivor she meets at a support group for ill teens.

Gus is immediately taken with Hazel's edgy wit and intellectual curiosity, while Hazel finds Gus both gorgeous and smart. With the help of a Make-A-Wish-type group, the two teens and Hazel's parents journey to Amsterdam to meet the author of a book that has long been important to Hazel, and thus becomes important to Gus.

Their meeting with the author turns out vastly differently from what either Hazel or Gus hoped, but both have learned -- through their illnesses -- that life usually doesn't follow a smooth path. To say much more would spoil the story; suffice it to say that Mr. Green is a master of the unexpected plot twist.

Mr. Green, 34, is one of the most popular and critically lauded authors writing for teens. In 2006, his first book, "Looking for Alaska," won the American Library Association's Michael Printz Award, given annually to the best-written teen novel.

His second book, "An Abundance of Katherines," won a Printz Honor (a runner-up award), and his third book, "Paper Towns," won a 2009 Edgar, given to the best mystery novel for young adults. His most recent book was "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," co-written with David Levithan.

An enthusiastic proponent of social media, Mr. Green has 1.1 million Twitter followers and 75,000 Facebook fans, and more than 600,000 people are subscribed to the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel that he created with his brother and which connects to the Nerdfighters website.

Still, Mr. Green, who is married and has a young son, didn't expect what happened when he decided to sign each copy of the first print run of "The Fault in Our Stars." Given that the first print runs of his books generally have been 30,000 copies or so, he figured it would be a big, but possible, feat. Instead, it turned into a five-month marathon (chronicled on the Vlogbrothers channel) as advance demand required the first printing of "The Fault in Our Stars" to be increased to 150,000 copies.

With the Jan. 10 publication of "The Fault in Our Stars," Mr. Green and his brother are setting off on a nationwide tour (not scheduled to include Pittsburgh) in a van bearing an image of the book cover. The two will chronicle their road trip on the Vlogbrothers channel.

Organized with independent bookstores, each event will offer video, music, readings and time for questions and answers. Many of the stops already are sold out.

The two brothers also will collect donations for a group called "This Star Won't Go Out" ( http://tswgo.org/index.html ). Founded by Esther Earl's family, the group works to offer financial assistance to families whose children have cancer.

"My brother and I over the years have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make book tours more fun and intellectually engaging," Mr. Green said. "I think it will be an important way for how independent bookstores survive and thrive."

At the moment, Mr. Green still totally is focused on "The Fault in Our Stars," and he's not ready to think much about what his next novel will be.

But he knows it will be a book for young-adult readers.

"I'm very grateful to have adult readers, and I like them a lot," he said. "But I still have a special place in my heart for readers in high school and college. I still think of them as my core audience."


Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com . First Published January 17, 2012 5:00 AM


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