Reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars cover

In the past 24 hours I have been a-flurry with thoughts about YA literature, mostly because I had two significant reading experiences. The first is the YA novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished last night. The second is an article in NCTE’s Council Chronicle (Volume 22, No. 2) titled “YA LiteratureWhere Teens Find Themselves” by Lorna Collier, which I read this morning.

Originally I wanted to write this post about Green’s novel, about how wonderful it is and what ideas I have for reading it together with a classroom of high school students. But while I considered my topic over breakfast, I read the NCTE article and found these quotes particularly relevant:

From Don Gallo, ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE) co-founder:

“There are some schools where no teacher even knows about YA lit . . . You ask, ‘What do you think about young adult literature?’ and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t teach that crap here.’ That’s been an attitude of some English teachers since forever. There are school districts where YA is used in middle school but not high school because ‘in high school we do the REAL literature.'”

From Robert C. Small, past ALAN president, quoted from a 1986 article published in NCTE’s English Journal:

“These are works of literature [from a list including Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, etc.] even in the narrowest and most conservative sense. They have serious intent, careful craftsmanship, effective expression, and other qualities that make literature literature.”

Essentially, the point I took away from this article is that many teachers don’t teach YA literature because they think it isn’t valuable in a classroom.

Do teachers really think this? The article didn’t cite any specific research, and I didn’t do a search for such research before writing this. What I do know for certain is that I didn’t include young adult literature in my classroom for many years.

Why didn’t I? First and foremost, I was completely unfamiliar with it. By the time I started teaching, my last encounter with young adult literature had been junior high school, when I was primarily concerned with questions of love and popularity. As I moved into high school I became a strictly adult book reader.

I went to high school in the late 80s, in a time when YA literature was not the same as it is now. That’s not to say YA lit of the 80s wasn’t valuable or important, there just wasn’t the huge volume and variety there is now. I wonder if I were an adolescent today if I would have a greater or lesser interest in YA books, and I wonder if young teachers today who were raised in a world of such books are more likely to teach them.

When I started teaching, I did not look down my nose at YA literature. As I said, I just didn’t know a thing about it. My teacher preparation program hadn’t exposed me to the latest and greatest works of YA lit, and no one in my new English department was teaching it. Although I don’t know this for sure, I don’t think a single English teacher in my department in the mid-90s had a classroom library with numerous new releases. I don’t say this to be critical. I don’t think they had any better idea what was new in the YA publishing world than I did, and I was fresh out of college.

The truth is that I didn’t really get interested in YA literature until I attended a BER workshop titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” I was looking for professional development points in order to renew my teaching license, and it seemed about time for me to really learn about what my students were reading when I wasn’t assigning Frankenstein or Romeo and Juliet. This coupled with my growing interest in a writing career put me on the path to developing a classroom library that sought to keep up with YA lit as it was being published.

It might seem obvious to you, if you are not an English teacher, that it’s important to keep up with the real world of books, but it’s not always so obvious to an English teacher. We are trained to teach the canon. We are trained to teach literary analysis, the five-paragraph essay, and (sometimes) grammar.

My own experience was that the more familiar I became with the actual real world of book publishing, and the more I understood and read the books my students were reading, and the more I could share about the professional world of writing (in other words the more I stopped being insulated from my field by classroom walls), the more I felt I could offer my students a glimmer of understanding as to how what-you-do-in-school is relevant-to-life.

There’s something about literature that always feels abstract when you’re a student. Something that makes the big ideas float around in a great mist you can wade through and even glimpse through, but never hold in your hand. The ideas encountered in English classes are universal, but contextual. I feel YA literature is a valid way to provide context for the audience it’s meant to address.

The story of a cancer patient and her romance with another cancer patient, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is one book I would use with students at any high school level. It is the kind of literature I wish all high school teachers were using in their classrooms. Although many more teachers are using contemporary YA works today than back in the 90s when I started teaching, I like to think even more would use it if they just read a book like The Fault in Our Stars.

And since this post has become longer than I intended, I’ll leave off with two blurbs from the back of my hardcover edition. I think they pretty succinctly state why I would love to read Green’s book with a group of high schoolers:

“[Green] shows us true lovetwo teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating and emotional ordealsand it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.” -New York Times Book Review

The Fault in Our Stars takes a spin on universal themesWill I be loved? Will I be remembered? Will I leave a mark on this world?by dramatically raising the stakes for the characters who are asking.” -Jodi Picoult

 



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