The Fault in Our Stars (2014), by John Green

Green-FaultYou know one of the worst reading experiences, one I have only recently discovered? Being old enough to need reading glasses and reading a YA novel the last third of which has me fairly continually in tears. Yes, I am talking about the latest YA phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

Critics have raved about this novel, calling it the salvation of YA literature, and to his great credit, the author denies that 1) YA needs saving and 2) that his book would be the one to do so. Good for him. The Fault in Our Stars is spectacular, I must admit, and tear-jerking in a way that is neither excessive (despite my previous comments) nor maudlin. He strikes an excellent balance amongst humour, pathos, and honest reflection on the world as presented by two intellectually precocious teens. Hazel’s language and awareness sometimes sit uneasily—notably her internal reflection and discussions with Augustus placed beside her conversation with Peter Van Houten—but that fades beside an existential awareness far beyond that of her peers.

It would be difficult for a narrative to support this existential non-angst were it not for the relatively unique positions Augustus and Hazel find themselves in: a cancer “survivor” and a terminal cancer “victim,” both of whom transcend the labels society casts upon them to establish a love that is both compassionate and emotionally mature. I can’t go into the plot without creating spoilers, which in some cases is not a problem, but would be for The Fault in Our Stars. Suffice it to say that the plot itself is not the driving force behind the narrative; it is somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the power of the novel.

I can see why the YA world is aflame with admiration for this novel: it is perhaps to our generation what books like Stephen Chbosky’s recently revived Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—or even earlier, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or Judy Blume’s Forever (1975)—were in their cultural moments. This not to equate these novels in terms of literary endeavours or accomplishments, but only to say that they all speak to the ethos of their times in some important ways. But like the earlier works, The Fault in Our Stars is, as John Green himself says, only one of “more than a thousand books … read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year.” So many of these novels have so much to say; they all work together to (in John Green’s metaphor) fill our world’s YA bookshelves.

I did think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I began reading The Fault in Our Stars, which struck me as odd, because my response to novels is not generally to be reminded of another… hence my previous comments. By the end of the novel, though, I was struck by yet another comparison, however actually erroneous. The only other novel I have recently read that both forced tears and yet filled me with great joy is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). I am, as I have said, old enough that these novels are not being written to resonate with me as a reader, yet they carry such emotional truths, presented through such beautifully crafted characters, that no one—adolescent, adult, or anyone in between—can help but respond. I’ll stop gushing now, and let you run off and read The Fault in Our Stars, or Aristotle and Dante, or any other of the myriad exceptional YA novels being produced these days…

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The Fall (2013), by Colleen Nelson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.5.

The Fall

Nelson-Fall

Colleen Nelson tells us in the afterward to The Fall that “as a junior high teacher, [she] watched first-hand as the students at [her] school deal with the death of a classmate.” She brings her careful sense of observation to bear on the development of her story and characters.
Ben is an average teen-aged boy, self-identifying as “a smart kid who needs to apply himself” (8), but instead spending all his time at the skate park. He—like many other students in the school—is bullied by Cory, Taz, and Taz’s younger brother Luke. When he (out of fear) does a good turn for Luke, they begin to form a friendship which ultimately results in Ben begin drawn towards the group’s unsocial behaviours. While the boys are goofing off one night, Luke falls to his death.

While the strength of the novel lies in Nelson’s careful exploration of how this affects the three other boys, there seem to be problems of representation, in the early section of the novel especially. While my (who attends an inner-city high school) did find the book compelling, she felt that “no high school is like that, so blatant. And no one texts that way”). Ben’s decisions, too, seem uncharacteristically poor, given his claim to being “smart.” And his best friend, Tessa, is a shallow character, alternating ineffectively between being a voice of conscience—ignored—and an angry, self-righteous sounding board.

The novel does, however, have significant strengths: a central theme that is highly topical is the misinformation Cory spreads about Ben on Facebook following the accident. More than just his own sense of guilt and sorrow, Ben has to deal with escalating persecution from Cory and the entire school population. Given today’s media attention to such issues, teens will recognize the validity of Nelson’s representation here. Most poignant, however, are the different family dynamics that the boys have to deal with. Each comes from an either broken or dysfunctional family; two of them at least find a deeper healing though the grieving process. Their separate journeys towards rebuilding their lives reveal a sophisticated expression of emotional development that completely redeems the novel from its earlier divergence from authenticity.

FaceSpace (2013), by Adrian Chamberlain

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.3.

FaceSpace

Chamberlain-FaceSpaceConcerned that my opinion of Adrian Chamberlain’s Facespace was biased by my age and gender, I gave the novel to my daughter’s grade 8 classmate—let’s call him Lucas—to read. Lucas, a remarkably articulate critical thinker for a twelve year old, not only validated my position, but shared his own opinions regarding the actions of the novel’s protagonist, Danny.
I begin by not liking stories that are based on dishonesty, unless they are handled extremely well and to good purpose. While Chamberlain’s intent is obviously not only valid but important—to teach readers the necessity for honesty and integrity in their social media interactions—I felt that the delivery was lacking to such an extent that young readers would not engage with the message. To begin with, there is no legal reason, as far as I know, for not calling “FaceSpace” either MySpace or Facebook, which it is obviously based on. Young readers like veracity in their novels; they like to see what they know to be real, not a fictional representation of something as central to their lives as social media sites, when there is no reason to avoid that verisimilitude. And—as Lucas points out—such social media sites, regardless of what one titles them—are international. Danny’s British “friend” James would have had numerous British FaceSpace friends, had he been real, and no high school student would miss that oversight… but that is getting into the plot, which I have not explained.
The premise is that young Danny is unpopular, and longs—as many young teens do—to belong. He invents a British “friend” on his social media site, one who is as popular as he wants to be himself. His experiment is a success, until he is discovered. There is a subplot in which Danny takes images of his popular best friend and alters them in Photoshop into unattractive and even grotesque images, reposting them anonymously. His friend is extremely upset, but Danny never owns up to his authorship of the images, which is a problem, as this situation is never resolved. The most significant obstacle to enjoyment of this novel—for me—lay in the character of Danny, who is implausibly naïve and more, well, stupid, than readers would believe themselves or any of their friends to be. Lucas agreed, noting that Danny “seemed to jump into trouble almost willingly,” and that his actions “seemed like a sequence of convenient and unconnected events rather than a narrative flow” (his words: honestly). Even as part of the Orca Current series, which is designed to have an easier reading level, I feel that FaceSpace fails to engage: it feels far too much like a character like Danny would not exist, and if he did, we would have little sympathy for him.

Freak the Mighty (1993), by Rodman Philbrick

Max is obviously from a problematic union: his mother was murdered by his father, who is not a nice person…  In fact, the boys’ lives are far from the stable, safe environment many readers of the book will be familiar with. As such, Freak the Mighty is both an eye-opener from readers as well as potentially providing a sense of recognition for readers from inner-city schools or less-fortunate family situations themselves. Philbrick creates a balance in the text that allows it to work for both these audiences. Freak and Max are both outsiders, but they find each other and form a friendship that helps them to survive the harshness of their school and home lives.  The slight implication is that both boys’ mothers were into the drug scene during pregnancy, or something similar.  Freak ends up with birth defects, and Max probably suffers from foetal alcohol syndrome.  There are interesting tie-ins for teaching this text at the grade 6 or 7 level: one could, for example, look at how the system works to protect people, given Killer Kane’s pending release on bail and how worried Max’s grandparents are. One could also reveal to students the statistic that 2/3 of child abductions in Canada are by parents (Statistics Canada Report on Canadian Child Abduction).  The legal aspects and issues of safety could be fascinating for this age group.