I don’t typically blog about young adult books, but this YAF book is one that adults could truly appreciate and learn from. Many of my students read this is middle school (my daughter loved it), but I just couldn’t quite pick it up. When it came out in 2012, I was only a few years out of cancer treatment myself–and certainly not ready to read a story about two teenagers with cancer. The thing about having cancer as an adult is that all I could ever think of during treatment was don’t ever let this happen to my kids. So I wasn’t exactly ready to crack open a book about a girl with metastatic thyroid cancer and a boy with osteosarcoma that took his leg. But when this was one of the few books not yet claimed by a teacher-leader for our 9th grade reading project, I figured it was time to dive in. And I was immediately hooked, reading the book in one day.
Hazel, the main character is witty, self-deprecating, honest, funny, and whip smart. I kept wondering how John Green could not only get inside the head of a teenage girl, but a teen-age girl who has approximately five years to live and has already trounced her odds due to an experimental treatment. I fell in love with her character at her first support group meeting when she says, “When they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five. . .so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards” (5). Suddenly I was back in my slogging days of treatment meeting survivor after survivor thinking if all these people survive, then who dies? Me? How could I not immediately connect with a character who struggled with my exact thoughts?
I’m not exactly a teenage love story type of reader, but because I adored these characters, and I so understood their plight, I was swallowed up in their love story, complete with sobbing tears at times. And yet, their humor, wit, mental strength and willingness to face their grim realities with candor kept me smiling.
Here are a few more favorite lines:
Hazel says to Isaac, “I mean she (Isaac’s girlfriend) probably can’t handle it. Neither can you. But she doesn’t have to handle it. And you do”(60). Another reminder that those of us who had/have cancer somehow handle it–because what else are we going to do?
From Augustus’s letter: “The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox” (312). I love that reminder. We focus so much on people at the center of attention, forgetting some of the greatest people are listeners and observers.
Somehow, Green manages to write a love story that’s not gushy and a cancer story that’s not overwrought yet conveys the raw emotion of suffering. It’s a brilliant mix. But no, I do not want to see the movie. That would be too much.