In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.
A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like
If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.
Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.
Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.
The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.
As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.
The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.
Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.
Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:
“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.
“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”
“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”
Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.
The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.
Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars
Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.
People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.
“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”
When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?
Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day
Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.
Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.
The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.
There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.
Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.
When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.
I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences.
Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.
In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.
Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.
Quotes from Before I Fall
Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.
She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)
This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.
Told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily is the story of a young girl struggling to understand herself and cope with the looming unfairness of womanhood. When she meets Peter and the lost boys, she believes she’s found where she belongs, but what will she give up to join them? Should she have to give up anything at all?
Anderson Embraces Complex Subjects in Peter Pan Reimagining
Jodi Lynn Anderson’s beautiful, poignant writing style carries you away to the jungle island of Neverland, a place where mystery and magic live and where some faces are ageless. Most of us won’t have found Neverland intriguing since early childhood, but I think even skeptics will like this one.
Retelling a children’s story in a way young readers will love it isn’t necessarily difficult, but Anderson goes beyond retelling Peter Pan. She re-imagines Neverland and its characters in a way many readers of all ages will enjoy (and maybe feel a little dread over). It’s no small feat to recreate Peter Pan in a way that doesn’t conjure up Disney characters or various actors; however, Anderson achieves all this and more in Tiger Lily.
The story is told from Tinker Bell’s perspective. But Tinker Bell—like all faeries, we’re told—is mute, and so while the occasional first-person opinion surfaces, the majority of the book is told from Tinker Bell’s semi-omniscient point of view. She can have no verbal communication with the characters she’s observing.
Tinker Bell is obsessed with watching the unpretty, proud native girl known as Tiger Lily—and with good reason. Tiger Lily is a walking mystery. She’s a girl who was found orphaned in the woods and raised by the Sky Eater tribe’s shaman. She’s a girl who doesn’t quite know how to be the person others want her to be, or even what kind of person she wants herself to be. She’s an intense character, and her village senses and reacts to the darkness of her personality. Sometimes they are in awe of her. Other times, they fear and hate her. They are her family, but they don’t understand her. A part of them doesn’t want to understand her.
Tiger Lily’s tribe particularly doesn’t understand when she nurses a shipwrecked Englander back to health. Sky Eaters hold a belief that coming into contact with Englanders makes them age and die as other non-Neverlanders do. When Tiger Lily’s efforts are discovered, she is harshly punished for her transgression.
It’s through these events that Tiger Lily eventually meets Peter Pan and the lost boys. They are an infamous bunch in Neverland, rumored to be psychotic murderers of mythic proportions. But the gossip is mainly that—gossip. Peter and the lost boys who follow him are only teenagers hiding from pirates, trying to survive the island’s wilderness.
In Peter, Tiger Lily finds a kindred spirit. He may be boisterous, while she is quiet, but they share a wild restlessness and rivalry that is both good-natured and stubborn. They also share an intense feeling of fear due to their own private circumstances. Being brave and proud, neither fully reveals this to the other. They fall in love slowly and awkwardly—innocently. This is where most young adult books settle the romance with nice, neat bows, but Anderson isn’t here to tell anyone a love story—at least not a typical one for young adults. She’s here to remind readers that life is rarely so nice, rarely so neat.
This is one of a very few young adult books I would give to young women without millions of disclaimers, such as, “Don’t you ever do this for a boy,” or “You know not all girls behave this way, right?” Beyond the fantasy elements in Tiger Lily, there are important life lessons that are applicable to real life. Some of these lessons are obvious and seen in many books, but others are more subtle and less common. And Anderson actually covers a couple of topics—(trans)gender equality and the effects of colonialism—that few young adult authors would dream of tackling, much less in the speculative fiction genre.
Anderson should also be commended for avoiding two tropes she could have easily fallen victim to with this story: what internet and TV lovers might call Mighty Whitey and Noble Savage. Tiger Lily’s tribal life isn’t played up to the point of becoming a spectacle, and there’s no Great White Savior to be found here. A lot of Peter Pan stories of the past and present have—accidentally or not-so-accidentally—drawn attention to racial stereotypes. Initially, I was sad to see Anderson make Peter an Aryan’s dream—defining his looks was something Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, consciously avoided—but I later understood Anderson’s reasoning.
Fairy tales often have blatant good and evil themes, but in Tiger Lily, decisions made with good intentions don’t always yield positive results, the bad guys sometimes have a reason for being bad, and sometimes love doesn’t save the day. Sometimes love isn’t enough, or it isn’t what you thought it might be. For a short book that makes use of a very old story, Anderson covers a lot of new ground. Many fantasy readers will love this, and it would make for a wonderful gift for teens.
Quotes from Tiger Lily
“I think we could be good friends,” he said, falling into step with her. “It’s perfect because I wouldn’t fall in love with you, like I do with the mermaids. Girls always seem so exotic. But it would be okay with you, because you’re more like … you know. Not like a girl.” He shrugged.
Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime.
An unspoken rivalry threaded their relationship, in which Tiger Lily thought that if she could keep up with him, she could hold tighter to him.
Thanks to a medical procedure known as “neurografting,” colloquially called unwinding, every harvested organ and body part of a teenager can be used on another person’s body. Stealing kiddies’ fingers and brains is a whole industry. Few believe it’s wrong. Some don’t even believe it’s death. Unwind is the story of three teenagers who have been signed up for unwinding by parents or guardians. They’re unwanted, someone can’t afford them, or they’re a religious “tithing”/sacrifice to God. Through the will to survive—or sometimes thanks to blind luck—these three soon-to-be-unwound teens find themselves on the run.
The “Abortion Debate,” if It Made Even Less Sense
When I first came across the summary for Unwind, I thought it sounded like it would be awful, but I couldn’t ignore that it had maintained a star rating of four (out of five) with 7,500 ratings on Goodreads (nearly five years later, that’s exploded to more than 124,000 ratings). That left me wondering if the hive mind knew something I didn’t about this young adult book. So, I set out to give it a try.
In the first few pages, readers come across this:
THE BILL OF LIFE
The Second Civil War, also known as “The Heartland War,” was a long and bloody conflict fought over a single issue.
To end the war, a set of constitutional amendments known as “The Bill of Life” was passed.
It satisfied both the Pro-life and the Pro-choice armies.
The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.
However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end.
The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.”
Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.
One hopes there’s almost no need to point out how illogical this premise is, but I’ll do so anyway.
- No one who is anti-abortion will ever think that, instead, killing teenagers is a form of legitimate compromise. If someone considers the former murder, then he or she will most certainly consider the latter murder, too. This isn’t a “grey area,” like the death penalty, euthanasia, or (some would say) abortion.
- No one who believes abortion should be available to women would think killing a teenager for his or her organs wouldn’t be murder. There is a reason the term’s pro-choice. I don’t know of any pro-choice individuals who would think a teenager isn’t a thinking, feeling, fully-alive human being capable of making choices for herself. This isn’t a fetus we’re talking about. And this is exactly why abortion rights activists fight for teenagers to have access to safe, legal reproductive care without hovering, cloistering, occasionally deeply conservative parental consent.
It would take years, perhaps even decades or centuries, of careful, subtle brainwashing to get everyone on board with this concept.
And so there’s the truth of it: Beyond its political agenda, Unwind also happens to be poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, the narrative is choppy, and the plot doesn’t make sense within the context of Shusterman’s own creation.
Clashing with Today’s Science
All lovers of speculative fiction know that the unbelievable can be made believable by a good writer. (Belief in this is one of the reasons I kept trying and wanting to like Unwind.) It just takes the proper balance of realism and “magic.” Shusterman technically knows this. After all, a major inspiration for this story was a horrible, creepy 2006 report of a Ukrainian stem cell scandal. And he repeatedly tries to tie in other real-world examples that may be loosely—usually very loosely—related to his idea.
Unfortunately, Shusterman’s efforts to ground Unwind fall flat for reasons far beyond highly questionable foundations and plot holes. They fall flat because they go against the medical science that exists today in American society—yes, even with its broken healthcare system and shady insurers. If Unwind‘s premise isn’t realistic for the next five years, you’ll have trouble convincing me that this story’s premise can be a reality any time soon. (Although, interestingly, Shusterman never specifically dates his story. For example, a war has passed, and there are “antique” plasma TVs and MP3 players, but the mobile phones aren’t smartphones.)
Unwind was published in 2007, when stem cell research was already widely portrayed in news articles as a revolutionary solution to numerous ailments.
- In 2006, The Independent reported on seven successful bladder transplants, where the bladders were grown from the patients’ own stem cells.
- Since 2008, we’ve done amazing things with stem cell technology. We can grow windpipes and urethras using one’s own stem cells. We can even “spray” new “skin” onto burn victims.
Those are the stories we should tell teens: the stories that show, time and again, that human minds save the day when they methodically and logically work to solve problems.
In reading Unwind, I get the impression Shusterman didn’t research current advancements much, if at all. His projections for the future would be significantly different and more logical if he had. I think, instead, he looked for—and poorly based Unwind on—the horror stories, of which there most certainly are some if you go in search of them. (There always are and will be.) At the risk of making him guilty for his associations, I can’t say I’m surprised a former Goosebumps and Animorphs writer would do such a thing.
Is it any wonder the book takes a pseudoscientific, spiritualistic, paranormal approach to all this?
Liberal/Moderate Parents and Teachers, Beware
I am usually of the “different strokes for different folks” opinion when it comes to books I don’t like, even if I think some are objectively bad. I feel that way about Unwind when it comes to adults reading it—many of whom, I should note, disagree with me about this book having an anti-abortion message. (I’m going to continue to say they’re wrong about that, though. Not many mainstream YA series get sold at far-right/fundamentalist Christian bookstores, but this series does—see here and here—just a few clicks away from the purity rings.)
Shusterman’s novel, when considered for young readers, seems insidious to me. It feels a little too much like conservative propaganda. Add to this that many reviews on Goodreads, by teens and adults alike, proclaim Unwind‘s premise is something that “could really happen” in the near future, and Shusterman is a tiny part of a much larger scientific illiteracy in our culture that embraces straw men in arguments.
Gift this one to teens with caution. The rest of the series will almost certainly be more, not less, political.