On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
When Hazel Grace Lancaster meets Augustus Waters there’s an immediate connection. Not only do the two seem perfectly suited for one another — they also seem like perfectly well-rounded high school kids. But Hazel and Augustus, the main characters in the young adult novel “The Fault In Our Stars,” are not your average teens. They both have cancer and, for their age, spend a lot of time thinking about big life questions like mortality and how their deaths may impact those who love them. It’s heavy stuff but the book has been massively successful with young adults — and adults alike. For this month’s Readers’ Review guest host Katty Kay discusses the best seller “The Fault In Our Stars” with our panel of experts.
- Louis Bayard author, "Roosevelt's Beast". His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye" ,"The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy," a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.
- Lizzie Skurnick editor-in-chief, Lizzie Skurnick Books, a publishing imprint that brings classic young adult literature back into print. She is the author of "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading".
- David McCullough, Jr. author, "You Are Not Special". He is a teacher at Wellesley High in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. © John Green, 2012. Reprinted with permission from Dutton Books. All Rights Reserved.
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane hopes to be back on the air with you all next week. It's not every day that a young adult novel skyrockets into the bestseller list, or that it's made into a blockbuster movie, or that its author is as popular with teenagers as a rock star. But that's just what's happened with "The Fault In Our Stars," the young adult novel by John Green. It is also our book for this month's "Reader's Review." To discuss the novel, I'm joined in the studio by Louis Bayard.
MS. KATTY KAYHe's an author. His most recent book is "Roosevelt's Beast." Lizzie Skurnick. She's Editor-In-Chief of a publishing imprint that re-releases young adult literature. And David McCullough Jr. He's a high school teacher and author of the new book, "You Are Not Special." Thank you all so much for being here.
MR. DAVID MCCULLOUGH JR.Great to be here.
KAYWe will be taking your calls and your questions and comments on the show during this program. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Drshow@wamu.org is our email address and you can also send us, of course, a tweet. We'd love for you to join our conversation. I want to start with you, David. You teach teenagers. What was it about "The Fault In Our Stars" that made it such a phenomenon?
MCCULLOUGH JR.I think the intensity of the emotions and the urgency of it all. It's -- Hazel is, to I think the adolescent girl what Spiderman or Superman is to the adolescent boy. She represents the ideal to which so many, if not secretly, quietly, aspire. She's so smart and feels things so deeply. And I think that resonates with kids.
KAYLizzie, my teenage daughter, who's 18, Maya, told me to read this book when she read it, when it first came out. And she described to me this great book about two teenagers who have cancer and then they both die. And I thought, there's not a hope that I'm going to read this book with teenage children of my own. It would just reduce me to tears. I started reading it the other day and it did reduce me to tears. But what struck me about the book as well, the moment I opened it and read the first paragraph is that it's funny.
MS. LIZZIE SKURNICKYeah. It is funny, I think. What struck me about the book, actually -- I sort of disagree with David. I think, you know, why it's so popular is partly that it's a very safe book. You know, if you didn't know what it was like to have cancer, all you would think was that, you know, you would speak ironically all the time. And, you know, know a million literary references, that you would immediately meet a man who was directed -- or a boy, really, whose affections were directed entirely towards you, who did nothing else
MCCULLOUGH JR.A tall, handsome boy.
SKURNICKTall handsome boy. Hot. And that your mother would plan picnics, and your father would periodically cry. And when you saw him in a pool of urine, you would be able to get over that. And I think that's something that teens today are asked to absorb. And so what they're really focusing on is not the sadness of the story, but the delightful parts of the story, which are not necessarily having anything to do with cancer.
MR. LOUIS BAYARDThat's interesting. I think there is an aspirational quality to it. These are extremely glamorous cancer patients, and even more so in the movie, which we can talk about later.
KAYAs Lizzie described, it is the best cancer novel for teenagers out there.
BAYARDThese are the kids that you'd want to be, if you could take away the terminal cancer diagnosis. These are the people you'd want to be...
KAYBut isn't it also the fact, of course, that they have the terminal cancer diagnosis, and that they are spending time dealing with these big meta issues of life and death and their parents and relationships and how short, tough and infinity and oblivion, that makes them -- if they were just regular teenagers, I wonder whether this book would have been as stratospheric. I mean, it is that added element, isn't it, as David was suggesting -- intensity.
BAYARDThey deal with those issues so astutely, and she has such facility with the language, that she has the sensibility of a middle aged college professor.
SKURNICKWell, she has the sensibility of Green.
BAYARDYes. They all do.
SKURNICKAnd I think that's very -- yeah, they all do. Which, you know, and I think that is a delightful sensibility. Don't get me wrong. I think it's wonderful. But to find it in every single character. You know, if I had a child who had cancer, who spoke so ironically, constantly, you know, I might shake her and slap her and say, you know...
KAYYou don't have to be funny all the time.
BAYARDSave that for when you're 35.
SKURNICKAnd I would be shocked if what she worried about, you know, was how I was gonna feel. I mean, you know, this is also the most well-behaved teenager on the face of the Earth.
KAYYeah, I think she acts out about once, doesn't she?
BAYARDYeah. She's very obedient to her parents. And...
KAYAnd very adult in her desire to look after them after she knows -- when she knows she's gonna die, you know. Even to the extent, at the end of the book, making them promise they're not going to get divorced because she wants them to stay together.
BAYARDWell yeah, the kids are the most mature people in the book. And that's the kind of a YA trope, isn't it? That the teenagers always know more -- are wiser than the adults.
SKURNICKWell, I think maybe -- it is a YA trope. It's a trope of YA novels now. This sort of knowing teenager. And I think that's also what's appealing to the teenager, you know? Not only being in control, but, you know, having your parents really be subservient to your emotions. You know, which is usually not the case in sort of the tragic novels for adults, or for YA, you know, of yesteryear. You know, generally, your parents don't understand you. They often don't like you. You often don't like them. And, you know, that is not in this novel at all.
SKURNICKYou know, she goes to Amsterdam. Her mother leaves her. She has sex. Sex is entirely uneventful.
SKURNICKYou know, sex aside, as if you know, and the thing my mother, you know, my daughter should also do is also have sex while she's in Amsterdam. You know? I think the sex is only described as condomy. Condomy. Condomy. And, you know, it made me feel like the novel itself is sort of condomy. You know, and I didn't take that as a failure of the characters. But I felt like, you know, the fact that Gus clearly had a condom on him, that's why they have a condom. That's 20 pages right there for any girl. And, you know, where is that?
SKURNICKThere's nothing like that, and so I don't think it's a failure of the author. I just think it's a decision by the author and I truly don't understand it. I really would love to see 20 pages on Gus had a condom.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I think if he stayed true to the sensibilities and world view and inarticulateness of your standard 16-year-old, you wouldn't have this very thoughtful exploration of mortality and illness and relationships that the novel provides. And so he's got this choice. Do I cast this as a real 16-year-old or is it this uber-kid? It's a little bit like casting -- and I can't remember the actress's name who plays Hazel in the film.
BAYARDShailene Woodley. Yeah.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Who's probably 22 or 3 years old. Why don't they cast a 16-year-old to play a 16-year old?
SKURNICKIs that true though? I actually think she's one of -- I don't know. But I think she's one of the teen actresses that is actually that age.
KAYWe'll have to get a reader to fill us in on that one and give us the facts on that one. David, I think this is interesting. Because what I'm hearing is kind of mixed. As somebody who is new to this book and new to this whole phenomenon, and had only heard it second hand, already from my daughter. I have not seen the film. I'm hearing kind of mixed reviews from you all. I mean, on the one hand, it's clearly been phenomenally successful. There is this aspirational quality, but on the other hand, Lou, it seems to be unrealistic, in a way that is not necessarily, Lizzie seems to be suggesting, totally positive.
BAYARDYeah, it depends what you're looking for from a book. To me, this is a book that goes down very easily, given that it's about death. It goes down -- it reads as fast as a rom-com. And it's that sensibility -- it's the lightness of touch that Green displays that makes it so easy for us. So, I will admit, I cried myself a little bit, toward the end. I sniffled.
KAYI was sobbing. But then I sob at everything.
SKURNICKI'm just a bad person.
BAYARDI will admit I did that, but at the same time, you keep gliding through this book, because it's crafted so shrewdly, I think was the term that David used. So, you know, that -- there's a kind of slickness there that makes it very -- a work fit for popular consumption, but that if you're looking for, as Lizzie suggested, a more real-life, a more textured version of life, or of the life of cancer survivors, you know, you might find that elsewhere.
KAYLizzie, is it a classic? Will it be considered a classic of the genre?
KAYIs it gonna hold up?
SKURNICKThat's an interesting question. That's so hard to tell. I mean, what I do is bring back books that were not considered classics that actually, I think, are classics, and that, you know, thousands of women experienced as classics. You know, I actually, I don't think so. And I don't think it's, you know, I think John Green is a wonderful writer, a beautiful writer. I think his ideas are very interesting. I don't think this is a good story. Nothing happens in this story.
KAYWell, except a couple of teenagers with cancer die.
SKURNICKYes, but that's the end. And that's it. That's actually, that's one page. You know, they go to Amsterdam. That's about it. There's really no arc. There's no adventures, there's no, there's nothing, and I do think the stories that last, generally, have more of a story. But I don't think that's a failing on the novel. I think it's just a failing of what people want in later generations are events.
KAYDavid, do you think that's fair?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, if you look at it from the point of view of the readership, it's a wildly successful novel. He nailed it for the consumers of this particular product.
KAYRight. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be a great literary classic.
MCCULLOUGH JR.No, I don't think it's a great literary classic. I think it's a very cannily executed weeper.
KAYDo you think the argument that there's not much of an arc, not much of a narrative, that not much happens, is valid.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I agree with that entirely.
BAYARDI would further argue that it actually goes off the rails when they go to Amsterdam.
KAYYeah, the whole Amsterdam thing is...
BAYARDI found that a bizarre decision...
MCCULLOUGH JR.Peter's a caricature. He's not...
BAYARDPeter's a character, and then the decision to take her to the Anne Frank house and link her martyrdom to Anne Frank's, I thought was pretty disastrous.
KAYOkay, we will be talking more about "The Fault In Our Stars," by John Green. It is our June "Reader's Review" book. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number, email@example.com is the email address. We're already getting your calls and questions and comments coming in. We will be taking them soon. I'm joined by Lou Bayard. He's an author. His most recent book is "Roosevelt's Beast." His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye," "The School of Night," and "Mr. Timothy," a New York Times notable book.
KAYLizzie Skurnick's Editor-in-Chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint that brings back classic young adult literature. David McCullough's here. He teaches American literature to 10th graders. He's also the author of the new book, "You Are Not Special." Do stay with us.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our June Reader's Review. The book that we are discussing is "The Fault in Our Stars." You can call us 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. And if you have something to say about the book you can chime in on our Facebook page as well. Use the hash tag dreads on Twitter as well so we can get all of your questions and comments coming in from our panel.
KAYWe've been having a lively discussion during the break about it. And I should correct myself. I said they both die of course. Hazel, who is the first person narrator of this book does not die, Lizzie, but there's no doubt that she's going to.
SKURNICKWell, I would hope so.
KAYThat was curiously phrased.
SKURNICKI meant narratively.
KAYWe were getting into the Amsterdam bit and I wanted to talk a little bit about this whole sort of novel within a novel also within a novel, which I found, Lou, sort of a distraction in a way from the events taking place between the two teenagers.
BAYARDYeah, I was puzzled by that. I thought that the Peter Van Houten character seemed to belong to another novel entirely. And I developed a theory since then that this is actually his nod to J.D. Salinger who is obviously his spiritual and literary ancestor and who did -- took the opposite path of John Green, which is to say he wrote a book beloved by millions of teenagers and then retreated from public view and craved no contact with them.
BAYARDJohn Green has gone the opposite way and gets daily contact through Twitter, through Grinder, through his YouTube channel, the Vlogbrothers.
BAYARDYeah, he's on...
SKURNICKI don't think he...
BAYARD...that's what they said in The New Yorker.
BAYARDTumbler. Oh, Grinder? John Green is on Grinder, people. You heard it here first -- no, I'm just kidding.
KAYBut he definitely does have a large web presence, which he has deliberately cultivated...
KAY...and which is part of his outreach I think. And in a way I think, you know, reading the book, the bits that I thought worked the best were his understanding of teen -- the teenagers are so much more lively characters in the book than the author is. They seem to -- I felt that when he was dealing with teenagers it was more successful than the dealing with the middle aged author. Didn't you, David?
MCCULLOUGH JR.In some ways, yes. I thought that their concerns, their activities all seem quite genuinely adolescent. But, again, the sensibility of the narrator is so adult that for me it renders them pretty implausible.
KAYOkay. I want to read this tweet which has come in from Beth Ellen. "You're being very condescending to teens. He wrote this based on experiences with cancer families as a Chaplain. There are wise teens," Lizzie.
SKURNICKOh, I agree. I actually think -- I think teens are wonderfully wise.
KAYYou deal with young adult fiction all the time.
SKURNICKYeah, that's what I do. I mean, I think teens are the most interesting people in the world. I love knowing about the teen consciousness. My problem with the book is that I actually felt like John Green was really replacing what teens necessarily do. And I did want to see more from what an actual teen would have. I didn't want so much cleverness, you know. I didn't want constant cleverness. I wanted the up and down.
MCCULLOUGH JR.The vocabulary, the facility with the language, the sophistication of the thoughts for me rendered these characters implausible. But then again, Gatsby is implausible. Hamlet is implausible.
KAYRight. Adult fiction can be totally implausible too, right?
SKURNICKYeah, I think the implausibility is fine because that's the fun part of novels. I think the part that worried me is that I felt like it was something the author was restraining himself from doing, not that, you know, the novel was implausible.
BAYARDAnd what do you mean?
SKURNICKWell, that, you know, we talked a little bit, you know, when the -- let's say when Gus is lying in a pool of urine. I'm not even sure that gets an entire sentence.
KAYThis is when Hazel -- we should put the context in for people who haven't read it. This is when Hazel goes to visit Gus whose cancer has returned. He is clearly close to death at this point. And she goes down into the basement and she finds him and he's wet himself. And she tries to sneak out so that he -- he's mumbling incoherently. She hopes that he hasn't realized that she's turned up.
SKURNICKYes. And his one reaction to it is I think to say that his last shred of dignity is over in the corner, which is very funny. But I would -- I just would've been more interested in -- you know, it's quite a big deal to see anyone who's sick lying in a pool of urine, you know. And they've had sex. You know, I would've wanted to know the teenagers' thoughts on this matter. I didn't want it to just be a sentence.
BAYARDThe chapters get shorter toward the end. He's hurrying things in. I think he smelled the end and was charging to the barn.
BAYARDIn Green's defense, I think he's very consciously working against the cancer genre, the sick lit conventions. And he is at pains -- I think this constant stream of irony and humor is his way of undercutting the sentimentality that we see in a lot of stories about young people with terminal illness. But I think...
KAYAnd in a way, it gives him a license to address the illness perhaps in a way that reaches a much broader audience than people just who have been sick. And I think that is a very effective part of this book, that it raises the whole issue of cancer and the suffering not just of the patients but of the families as well in a way that is -- anyone can read, not just people who have had a close association with somebody who's very sick. And that's because of the humor.
SKURNICKBut then are you really writing about suffering? I mean, I'm not saying that you can't write a funny novel about suffering. I think many of my favorite novels are funny novels about suffering. But I think, as Lou said, this novel really goes down very easy. And you can still write a funny novel about cancer without making it so readable, so gentle.
BAYARDI will say there are moments where there is a fairly bracing blandness. I'm thinking of the moment when she -- Hazel remembers getting her cancer diagnosis three months after her first period. And so the world is like saying, congratulations, you're a woman, now die. And they have these moments that do kind of reach out and smack you a little bit in the face. But, yeah, so I think he's trying to have it both ways and in some ways is trying to be real to the suffering. And he sincerely cares about these characters. He sincerely cares about kids with cancer because he spends a lot of time with them. But also to create a product that can be read by millions of people including parents.
KAYAnd David, the book is partly based, of course, on a girl that John Green got to know, Esther. Not Esther herself, but it is partly based, as Lou was suggesting, on somebody who he had had a very close relationship who had died with cancer.
MCCULLOUGH JR.But it's a book that needs to stand on its own as a work of fiction. And I think the great strength of the novel is his exploration of illness and mortality and relationships. I don't want to keep saying the same thing over and over again but...
KAYWhy do you think he introduces this whole device of Hazel's obsession with another book? And I found that very interesting. We talked a little bit about the Amsterdam and the author side of things but it runs through the whole book. Hazel has read this book called "An Imperial Affliction" which she says is the best book ever and totally understands her. And in a way it is a theme of the book. What's all of that about and why do you think it was important to John Green?
MCCULLOUGH JR.It's self referential. I wondered why Hazel didn't know that Peter had a child who died of cancer.
KAYThe author of the book.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yeah, with so much available on the internet how could that very important detail not -- have eluded Hazel. I just don't, you know, see that.
KAYAs a device -- as a literary device, what's it serving that process though of her having this book that is discussed throughout?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, it gives her something to feel passionate about. It makes her feel less lonely, I think.
SKURNICKThat's also a very common YA device that the child -- you know, herself or himself is a reader. And I don't know whether that's based on the author or, you know, why but that itself is a device.
BAYARDAnd that Gus gets it gives -- Gus passes the test right away.
KAYYes, it gives them something...
BAYARDAnd it gives the hunky handsome boy some depth.
KAYRight. And something specifically that they can bond over. Also during the book it's not just that there's this novel that features prominently. There are a lot of literary references throughout the book, both of them are constantly referring to literature. Now Lizzie, you suggested earlier that that might be, again, slightly unrealistic. Teenagers are not always referring to literature and are perhaps not as well read as these two teenagers are. But again, what's the literary purpose of those literary references?
SKURNICKWell, I actually think that's quite common, you know, for characters to refer to literature and to read it. I guess what was different is that they seem so comfortable doing that. They were, like, you know, college -- there was no element of experimentation. There was no element of learning. You know, it was as if they were fully formed intellects. And that is rare. It's rare in everybody, forget teenagers.
KAYLet's go to...
MCCULLOUGH JR.You're not reciting Prufrock?
SKURNICKI actually -- you know, I do memorize poems. And I didn't think that was strange. I thought what was strange about it is that they seem so happy to be -- it's like, oh, do you know a poem? Of course I know a poem. You know, I know seven poems.
KAYWell, no, actually I have to say, you know, if I look back at the periods of my life where I have had the energy and the brain capacity and the emotional drive to learn poems and read literature intensely and think about it intensely -- certainly not now that I have four kids and a busy job. It was when I was a teenager that somehow it seemed to strike me much more intensely. Let's go to William who is joining the program from Winston-Salem, N.C. William, thank you for calling into "The Diane Rehm Show."
WILLIAMThanks for having me on the show.
KAYGo ahead. You want to have a comment or question for my panel.
WILLIAMYeah, just a quick comment. I feel like teenagers don't feel like teenagers, rather they're looked upon by teenagers. And you don't realize or understand that until you are no longer one. And...
KAYThat's such a great comment.
WILLIAM...and the feeling of moral consequence especially in teenage love, the cancer gives relevance and validity to that. And I --that's my main point.
BAYARDThat's a really good point.
BAYARDThat's a really good point. There is this sort of grandiosity about teenage feelings. This -- you know, our love is the only love that has ever existed. And in the context of the book that's true. This is the only love that matters in this particular world. So you're right, that's a very good point.
KAYAnd somehow the prospect of mortality makes that feeling even more...
BAYARDOf course, it gives them empirical reasons to feel that way.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And urgency.
SKURNICKWell, I also think that feeling matches -- you know, that's partly why teens like it. You know, every relationship, you know, feels that dramatic when you're a teen. So you can identify with that feeling even when you don't have cancer.
KAYLou, you're writing a book at the moment that has a teenage protagonist. So all of this is clearly buzzing around in your own brain.
BAYARDIt is buzzing around. And so I applaud John Green's achievement. I think he's written -- I know we've been pounding on it -- it's a lovely piece of work. I mean, it's -- page by page it's just gorgeous writing. And it's successful in its own terms. And the question I have, as I'm writing my own, is what constitutes a YA novel anyway.
BAYARDTo me it's been so broadly redefined that anything with a teenage protagonist now gets classified, stamped immediately as (word?) ...
KAYAre you being encouraged by publishers to make your novel a young adult fiction novel?
BAYARDI think many authors are because that's -- YA is one of the few growth sectors in publishing right now.
MCCULLOUGH JR.So is YA a literary distinction or a marketing device?
BAYARDOh, that's a very good point. I think it's marketing personally, yeah.
SKURNICKYeah, it's absolutely marketing.
KAYThat we -- that this is something that publishers have caught onto as a way of pushing fiction but it doesn't necessarily describe a literary genre.
SKURNICKNo. And actually some authors were very upset by it. I mean, Robert Cormier who wrote, you know, "I Am the Cheese" and many other -- he actually didn't like it that his books were in the young adult section. You know, he felt that he was just writing books.
BAYARDI'm sure Salinger didn't walk into his publisher's office and say, I've got this great YA. You're going to love it.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And do join the conversation, 1-800-433-8850, the phone number. You can find us on Facebook as well and also of course send us a tweet as well. We will be taking more of your calls, questions and comments. Let's go to Mary who joins us from Chicago, Ill. Mary, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARYThank you so much for taking my call.
KAYYou're so welcome.
MARYI am an oncology nurse for the last 29 years. And I have an additional perspective of having chronically ill -- two children that ended up in the National Institute of Health. The beginning of your conversation today had a much harsher tone to it. But now I feel as though you guys have softened your view. You know, talk to the topic, but I have to tell you, I enjoy "The Diane Rehm Show." And I was horrified how the conversation started because it sounded like such literary elitism that I wondered if you have ever been exposed to anyone who's truly been ill and dying.
MARYThat wasn't an elderly adult or something who is at that age span and you expect them to die. Because children -- even children younger than the two depicted in the story, have incredible depths of character. They are obviously very egocentric. So worrying about how will my parents survive without me, that is an incredibly common threat. Their biggest concern when they're dying are the people they're leaving, not themselves.
MARYSo that to me going through from the minutes, it was really, you know, brought up to me as her central issue. It wasn't death. It wasn't leaving. It wasn't the fact that she would not get to grow old and have children of her own. It was, what will happen to the people that have loved me through this? The other issue that we see regularly with children that are ill is, they're in an adult universe for years. They're not with their peers. They don't have adults -- they don't have that peer kind of I need to rebel, I need to have an attitude.
MARYThey're so indoctrinated in the adult conversation and the adult -- you know, what do you talk to them about? About the books you've read to them? About the books they listen to on tape? About the things that you hope bring richness into their lives in the time that you have them with you. So they're exposed to things that a traditional 15-year-old wouldn't be. That's just the natural course of having a long-standing illness.
MARYAnd we obviously -- I think their depth of love was beautiful to see depicted, the fact that the sexuality wasn't, I thought was a kind thing to do. Because I didn't personally feel as though it needed to be refocused. Everything kids -- I have four children -- these days is focused on their sexuality. This was a depth of a relationship that even though it was brief was just as beautiful to me as Romeo and Juliet in its brevity and its depth. I mean, they died for obviously different reasons but it was still as touching.
MARYAnd the fact that she didn't want him to realize that she'd walked in and he had urinated on himself, I can't tell you -- there's never been a patient in my 29 years that for the first time that that happened where they lost control, it didn't devastate them.
MARYSo for her to be cognizant of that and try to protect his emotion, I don't think that was the author trying to throw out some, you know, titillating tidbits. I think it was him illustrating kids -- they see each other. They see each other in the moment of the other's pain. You know, and I thought it was beautifully written. I -- obviously if he was a chaplain in a children's hospital, you can't put into words how much pain and suffering we see. But we see such beauty and such grace. It's such a humbling place to go every day.
KAYMary, thank you so much for calling in and for sharing your experiences of working with children, and of course your own two children as well. And this is clearly a novel and a subject which has had huge resonance with anybody who has been in this position and anybody of course like yourself who has known people who have been in this position. We're going to take a quick break. Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined our "Readers' Review." The book we are discussing, "The Fault In Our Stars," by John Green. I'm joined by Lou Bayard, Lizzie Skurnick and David McCullough here in the studio. And Lou, before the break, we heard from Mary, who is an oncology nurse, who had had two children herself with catastrophic illnesses, who was making a very powerful case for this book and for the way in which it has touched, clearly, millions of people.
KAYNot just people who have known people with cancer, but millions of people who appreciate the way in which John Green dealt with the whole subject of catastrophic, terminal illness. And did it in a way, and we were discussing this in the beginning of the book, and maybe the humor and the irony that the characters have is a way that he was able to do this. And you wanted to weigh in on what Mary said.
BAYARDFirst of all, I wanted to thank her for providing that perspective to the conversation. It was a perspective that we really needed to have and a very valuable one. I, myself, knew a boy named Evan, who died of cancer at a very young age, much younger than the kids in this book, and was a shining example of bravery, as were his parents. I don't doubt that kids with cancer acquire maturity beyond their years, just by virtue of their experience. I think what we're talking about is how that maturity is expressed.
BAYARDAnd to me, the way they express their wisdom is the way a -- I don't know how old John Green is, but the way a married, mature man would discuss it. I mean, Gus is talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs like he's some kind of college professor. I think that's the difference. I would never tell a teenager or anybody they're wrong to like this book. You love what you love. I'm just saying -- we are coming at this from the perspective of adults who have been around the block a few times, and we're going to see it differently.
KAYAnd I think there's a difference too -- looking at the book in terms of literary review and in terms of the subject matter, which is clearly very intense and very powerful. And perhaps marrying those two things, David, is not always the easiest of processes.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I was sitting on my couch a few weeks ago reading this book and my teenage daughter came around the corner and saw me, and saw what I was reading, and said, well, what do you think? And I hadn't finished my first sentence when she turned abruptly on her heel and said, you're so mean. And left.
KAYOkay. I have an email here and I'm gonna follow it with a call that we have. The email has come in and it says, it's written to us, is this appropriate for an almost 12-year-old? Due to all the hype, my daughter is desperate to read it, but I've held her off. Sorry to say, I don't really care to read it myself. Well, let's go to the phones now and we'll go to Jesse who joins us from Alta Vista, Virginia. Jesse, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KAYJesse, you're 12. How do you respond to the email that we've just read out on the program?
JESSEActually, I was 11 when I read this book, and I've just recently turned 12. And I felt like I could understand the book. You don't have to be a teen, or you don't have to have cancer. You just have to realize that it's two teens in love and they share this strong feeling for each other. And that, frankly, they help each other through this. Their love is what keeps them both alive. Not exactly for Gus, though.
KAYJesse, what did you think of Hazel, because we were discussing Hazel's character at the beginning of the book, and David McCullough, who's with us in the studio, was suggesting that a lot of girls would really empathize with the character of Hazel. He even described her as the equivalent of Spiderman or Superman, but for girls. Is that how you felt about Hazel?
JESSEYes, it was. I felt like she kept herself strong. And she kept Gus strong. And she sort of had this realization that, you know, there is a chance that she might die, and, you know, she'll still battle through this. And she can do it, even though she had her hard times.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Are you really 12?
SKURNICKShe's 12. 12-year-olds are wonderful.
KAYJesse, thank you so much for calling in to "The Diane Rehm Show." And for reading the book. And for being so fantastically articulate in your comments about it. We really appreciate you calling in.
JESSEThank you for having me. And by the way, I love your show.
KAYThank you. So there we have it. The answer. This is a book that is appropriate to the person who emailed in for us to read for even 12-year-olds. Okay, let's read another email here. As an 18-year-old who loves "The Fault In Our Stars," and John Green, I'm frankly offended by your discussion that seems to draw the conclusion that teenagers are inherently incapable of understanding their emotions. I appreciate literary discussion, and I believe Hazel and Gus are very realistic, as well as the story, which follows everyday life and everyday feelings, which are simply highlighted by the epic scope of their love and their inevitable deaths. Lizzie, how do you respond to Haley?
SKURNICKWell, I actually think this touches on something I do love about the book, which is that John Green himself is teaching through the book. I mean, I think he's a wonderful teacher, and I think part of the literary devices are actually to give a teenager access to things that they are feeling, but can't necessarily articulate quite as well. And I think we also see that in his actual contact with readers, which is also intellectual, which is also fun and is also really communicative. And I actually, I mean, I don't necessarily agree that it necessarily reflects teenagers, but I think it's very useful to teenagers.
KAYOkay, let's go to the phones again, to Joette, who's joining us from Athens, Ohio. Joette, thank you so much for dialing in to the program.
JOETTEThank you. Your panel touched briefly on whether or not young adult novels actually were a genre or just a marketing device, and if indeed, hopefully, it is a genre, what would be the true characteristics that would make it different than an adult novel?
KAYThat's very interesting. Lou, I'm gonna let all of panelists respond on that, because I think that's a big subject. Lou, why don't you start?
BAYARDIf we're talking about it as a genre, as it's popularly conceived, obviously it has a teenage protagonist, often female, almost always female, in addition to whatever male protagonists are in there, and it also has a sense, kind of what we talked about before, which is that the child is father to the man. That the teenagers are the ones who have the corner on wisdom, who understand the world best of all. And as Lizzie said, teenagers can be extremely wise, so I don't want to say that that's a myth, that's a lie. I just -- it's just a refraction of the world into a teenage perspective. That's my clumsy way of defining it.
KAYLizzie, put it in a historical context, because of course, part of what you do is bringing back YA novels that have fallen out of publication. So, how do you compare this to novels in the past, that might have been, even if they weren't called young adult fiction?
SKURNICKWell, I think what those novel were, that's different from this novel, is that they, and I think it's why I love these novels, is they really address the equivalent of the adult sensibility that we see in the teenage sensibility. Because it is its own stage that has its own depth of expression. You know, its own complex attitudes, and I think that's really what we saw before, which is why I was disappointed in the book, and I wasn't trying to be disrespectful when I said I really did want 20 more pages on what it's like to see your boyfriend reduced to that state.
SKURNICKI wanted to know what their sex was like. Not in a sexy way, but because, you know, that's an important experience to 80-year-olds, you know, and it's important to 17-year-olds. And I wanted -- I did not want the novel to draw back from the things that make adolescence actually difficult. You know, to say nothing of cancer.
MCCULLOUGH JR.To me, fiction is fiction. And if it resonates with an adolescent reader, that's great. If it resonates with a 55-year-old reader, that's great too. I don't see important distinctions between or categories of fiction. It should be...
KAYWell, I mean, realistically, throughout history, have people in their 16, 17-year-olds read the same thing as people who are 40 or 50?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, that's approaching it from the reader point of view. I'm thinking of it from the book itself. I don't know. I enjoy "Stewart Little." I've enjoyed "Wind In the Willows" as an adult. I don't think one should put up these barriers. You know, is "Catcher In the Rye" young adult fiction? I don't know.
KAYSo, are publishers, do you think, doing a disservice, in a sense, to fiction, by marketing and pushing perhaps authors like Lou to think of marketing fiction in terms of having a teenage character making their novels specifically for teenagers at the exclusion, possibly, of adults, and vice versa.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Right. Or should a teenage reader venture beyond the young adult genre? Is that inappropriate? Is a novel written with an adult sensibility irrelevant to a child? No, I don't think so.
SKURNICKI think a big difference, actually, nowadays, that speaks to that is that adults read the novels their children read. I mean, my parents would have been horrified to see what I was reading. You know, if anyone knows V.C. Andrews. Even "Jaws" is an exceptionally dirty book, actually.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yes it is.
SKURNICKYeah. Oh good. A co-reader. And so I think that's a huge difference, that a child doesn't get privacy in their reading anymore. And I do think that's reflected in the novels, you know, that's why the sex is condomy. You know, is your mother going to let you read the book if it actually talks about what it's like to have sex, if it's not an agreeable mother.
BAYARDWe should add too that the bulk of YA readers now, are adults, right? People over 18 -- that's one of the statistics I read, and actually, the largest category is women between the age of 30 and 45, 46, something like that.
KAYWhat do you read into that, Lou?
BAYARDThat -- well, we can read a lot of different things into it. Ruth Franklin*, (*should be Ruth Graham) who wrote a column recently in Slate that shows the infantilization of Americans haste. I think it means that writers are writing for both audiences. And this book is very clearly written for parents, as well as for teenagers. It's something that, as Lizzie said, we can read together and find common ground in. Whether you find that a positive development or not is up to you, I suppose.
KAYLet's go back to the phones to Caley who joins us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Caley, thank you for waiting. You're on the air.
CALEYOkay. I just wanted to say that before you guys were talking about the overall cleverness of Hazel as the narrator of the book and everything. And my comment was just that I think that that is very real life. She does know who she is, because she doesn't know how much longer she's going to be able to be that person. She's been dead/dying her whole life. You know? She was diagnosed before she even had her first period, and she just -- she's been dealing with this forever. And so she's kind of had that time to mature and develop and sort of think on things such as mortality and everything like that.
CALEYAnd the same thing with Gus. And, you know, what do you do when you're sick? They can't outside and be, you know, normal teenagers, so they read. They watch TV, everything like that. So, they just -- they have a totally different perspective on life. So I think that…
KAYCaley, do you think that if Gus and Hazel had been depicted as the characters they are, but that they didn't have cancer, then are you suggesting they might not be as realistic for you?
CALEYI think that that would sort of change it. I mean, I lost a parent when I was 11, and so that definitely, you know, the whole aspect of death and dying completely changed for me in that. And so that's why I think that they sort of, you know, not so much glossed over, but skipped parts, such as Gus lying in bed, in his urine. You know, Hazel, she's familiar with that. She's dealt with sickness her whole life. That's not a big significant thing, that's not something she was grossed out by. You know, maybe she has been through worse. So, I just, I think they were very realistic for me.
KAYCaley, thank you very much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show." Those were really interesting comments, and they do suggest that, you know, how this book has resonated, again, both with teenagers and with adults. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. In the book, towards the end of the book where it's clear that, after Gus dies, and Hazel herself, she's the first person narrator, so we know that she's going to be with us through the whole of the book. She doesn't die in the book. Lou, did you think that was significant? I mean, it's an interesting, kind of, almost shutting of the book, isn't it?
BAYARDWell, the book she loves, by Peter Van Houten, actually ends in mid-sentence, and I was kind of waiting for Green to pull off the same trick. But, in effect, I think that's what he does. I don't think he's holding up from the possibility of a sequel down the road, but one never knows. Yeah, I think -- it's an interesting thing that Hazel -- Hazel is our consciousness for this book, and so I think she almost needs to survive all the way to the end, because she's our way in.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I was a little that she gave Augustus the last word.
KAYShe doesn't. She says, I do. I do.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Yeah. Well, I mean to reflect a little on that, and to ruminate a bit, I would have liked to have left the novel...
KAYWith Hazel discussing more?
MCCULLOUGH JR.A valedictory from Hazel. Yeah.
KAYBecause it ends with Gus's eulogy, effectively.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Of Hazel.
KAYAnd then her one line at the end of the book.
MCCULLOUGH JR.And having...
KAYI feel like we've just given away the ending of the book.
MCCULLOUGH JR.I think we did that a while ago.
KAYSpoiler alert there. I want to quickly talk about -- we will take another call in just a second, but I want to talk about the film. Lou, you've seen the film. How does the film compare to the book?
BAYARDI have to say, in every way, I think it's inferior, and I was puzzled as to why, because it's quite a faithful rendition of the book, and Chailene Woodley, I think, is excellent as Hazel, but I think it's because we lose Hazel's voice, and that, to me, is the triumph of the book. This voice is so charming and so inviting and disarming. And that, aside from a few voiceover passages, that goes away in the movie, and so whatever was light and dry...
KAYYou mean cause some of the humor is less...
BAYARDSome of the humor and some of the dryness and some of the lightness of the book goes away, and so the movie becomes correspondingly heavy and overemphatic and weepy. And of course, and it does, in fact, glamorize cancer, because these kids are insultingly robust toward the last minute. I mean, Gus doesn't look at all like he even has a common cold.
KAYWhereas in the book, he's clearly wasting away.
BAYARDYeah, yeah. And they leave this actor looking just as gorgeous at the end of movie as he is at the beginning. So, and they clearly did not want to go, what Lizzie was talking about, go really that distance with what cancer actually does to a body. So, I think, you know, to me, the book is much better.
KAYAre you gonna go and see the movie, David?
MCCULLOUGH JR.I will. I will.
KAYWith your teenagers?
MCCULLOUGH JR.Well, my daughter's already seen it, and she would be the likeliest. My teenage sons dismiss the whole enterprise as just another "The Notebook."
KAYLizzie, will you go and see the movie?
SKURNICKI can't, because my seven month old won't let me.
KAYYour seven month old is not a teenager who is going to.
MCCULLOUGH JR.However precocious he may be.
KAYHowever precocious he may be. I think that, clearly, there is something about this book that has had a huge amount of -- my daughter absolutely loved it and loved the characters, and I think, perhaps as you suggested, David, it's the character of Hazel that has reached teenage girls in such a -- and maybe it's an idealized form of who they would like to be or as you said, I thought that was a wonderful description of Hazel as the Spiderman for girls.
MCCULLOUGH JR.Thank you.
KAYAnd I think that certainly had something for my daughter, as well. Thank you very much, the three of you, for joining me. Lou Bayard, Lizzie Skurnick, Dave McCullough. Thank you very much. The book that we've been discussing, John Green "The Fault In Our Stars." Thank you so much for joining me.
KAYNext month, our "Readers' Review" will be a novel about a beautiful and smart Nigerian woman who leaves military ruled Nigeria and heads for America. For the first time, she must grapple with what it means to be black. I hope you will join the discussion of "Americana," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That will be Wednesday, July the 23rd. Do join that discussion. "Americana" has been one of my favorite novels, I have to say, this year. I'm Katty Kay, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for listening.
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