So this movie came out this weekend.
It’s based on a book written by a guy called John Green, and if you haven’t heard of him by now, you apparently live under an even larger boulder than my parents. (For reference, my mom gets her news from a mashup of Good Morning America and push notifications from USA Today; my dad is significantly more internet-savvy, but hasn’t read a fiction book since high school.)
Yes, yes, like everyone else on the internet, I’m talking about The Fault in Our Stars.
I’m not actually going to talk about the movie, because I haven’t seen it yet. (I’m going on Monday, I promise.) No, if you’ve got like ten minutes, I’d really like to talk about all the screaming, crying girls who are absolutely in love with this book’s author.
HERE’S THE PROBLEM:
Last week, I was volunteering at BookExpo America, and I was lucky enough to have a little time off to go see John Green’s panel. I didn’t see the clip that launched the session off, as I was still outside helping to herd the last several hundred fans into the auditorium (while simultaneously refusing a bribe from a whispering, middle-aged librarian who was wide-eyed with desperation). In fact, I didn’t even know that the presentation started with a clip. I couldn’t hear it over the screaming.
And then, later, when John walked onto the stage. And when he said something funny. Or like, when he said something.
Then, on Thursday night, one of my friends went to a The Night Before Our Stars event, which was basically an early screening followed by a video chat Q&A with John Green. She had dragged her boyfriend along, knowing that the event would be much more teenager-y and girly and teary than he was expecting.
Still, even she was caught off guard. “I didn’t expect there to be quite so many actual teenagers,” she texted me. “We’re easily the oldest non-parents here.”
Later, after they’d seen the film, she texted me again to say how wonderful it was and how, contrary to all his expectations based on the age and gender of the screaming masses, the boyfriend thought it was “really, really good.”
I remember feeling annoyance.
For all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. I was annoyed at the girls. The little ones, the pretty ones, the crying ones, the ones who also love Twilight or who got really into TFiOS after finding out that Tris and her brother (a.k.a. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) were going to be the romantic leads, the ones who screamed so loud I couldn’t hear John Green at BEA.
Let me repeat that: I was annoyed at the girls. I wished that the people who showed up to TFiOS events weren’t just silly little teenage fangirls, because then maybe John Green would be thought of as something other, something more, than a “teen whisperer.” Then maybe the book would be appreciated as something more than just YA.
^^^ I wish I could unthink those thoughts. But more than that, I wish that I — who consider myself an educated, liberal woman and practically a feminist by default — was incapable of the kind of sexist thoughts that occupy the above paragraphs.
But I’m not. We live in a society that taught us to think that way. Just like glitter and the color pink, YA (or really any book with a girl on the cover) is for silly little girls. And that’s just not fair. Because yes, TFiOS is about a girl. And there’s a cute boy and kissing and apparently that’s girly stuff. (Though to be honest, the straight 15-year-old boys of the world could learn a lot from Augustus and Isaac.) But there’s also travel and sex and disappointment and cancer and heartbreak and life and death — and that’s everyone stuff.
So what I really wish is that all those girls screaming wouldn’t put the book and its author in a category, especially a category that means boys and men (and women over the age of 16) will think less of themselves for reading it. (And they will be encouraged to think just that: check out the piece from Slate called “Against YA”.) And since I can’t figure out a way to change socialized norms, I guess I sort of end up gritting my teeth and wishing they’d shut. up. They end up being the face of a book I care about and that’s full of things that have meaning, but the world writes them —and therefore it — off as silly.
The solution, quite clearly, is to stop being sexist and to realize that teenagers are mentally and emotionally complex. Stop writing them off and then stop writing the books off. But if that’s too hard, let’s start with the books.
WHY THE BOOKS TEENAGE GIRLS LOVE CAN’T BE SILLY:
A fact that’s hard to deny: you can tell a lot about a person by their bookshelf.
Why? Because the books people love are the books that fill holes in their souls. They’re the books that echo back some sort of truth out of the void. And it’s not just the happily-ever-afters of YA romances. This is true of all books, so don’t try to go all lit-snob on me. Your favorite book is A Tale of Two Cities? I raise you “‘Tis a far, far better thing that I do…” and suggest you find somewhere to volunteer.
Okay, so I’ll give you that a lot of books written for teens contain certain clichés:
- They have romance
- They have a (possibly way too super awesome, but often female) hero
- They have a character who “finds herself”
- They have magic
- They have ridiculously crazy fight scenes considering they’re about teens
- They possibly have weird dystopian settings
These repeated tropes are not a bad thing! These are the things that echo back from the void for teens: finding love, finding independence, finding yourself, finding hope, finding strength, finding a way forward into the future.
This, my friends, is what the teenage girls of today are asking for!
If you’re what they call an “adult” — though who really ever feels all grown up? — then your daughters, nieces, students, and protégés are asking you these questions: How will I find the strength to go forward on my own? What will I do when you can’t guide me? How will I know love and what will I do when love stops? Who am I and how do I accept myself and love myself? What does the future bring?
If you’re a teenage boy, then your classmates, sisters, and friends are giving you these answers: I like boys who think. I like boys who wonder. I like boys who are kind. I like boys who tell me and show me that they love me. I like boys who don’t give up even when I’m too confused about who I am to have the space in my heart to be good to someone else. (And yes, sometimes that last one is overwritten and the relationship comes across as too persistent. But the girls want loyalty, not stalkers, and so loyalty is what echoes back at them.)
These girls might not want to sit you down and ask any old adult these questions. That’s part of independence, after all: figuring things out on our own and finding the people we relate to, whose answers make sense.
For a lot of young girls out there, John Green’s answers make sense.
Plus, as a bonus, he’s an approachable, rather handsome, kind of shy sort of gentleman who is clearly clever, who clearly wonders, who shows them with every video, every book, every thoughtful answer that yes yes yes he does love them.
(At the BEA event:
Fangirl: Can you tell us anything about the next book?
John: I cannot. But if you look me in the eye and ask me to work harder on it, I can assure you I will.
Fangirl: I demand that you work harder.
That’s not silly.
What’s wonderful about the world today is that so-called silly young girls can find each other on the internet, and there they can claim YA as their own, share it with their own, and wear words like “fangirl” and “nerdfighter” like badges of honor and courage.
What’s terrible about the world today is that no one except girls ages nine to nineteen wants to admit they read the same things as girls ages nine to nineteen. It’s either “girly” or “childish” — one argument is a social construct and the other is stupid: who do you know whose emotional life is richer or more complex than your teenage daughter’s? But yes, sure, sure, I’ll concede that young girls should read the classics or books about older characters as well as their YA. Perspective is good.
WHY WOMEN SHOULD READ BOOKS GIRLS LOVE:
1. Perspective is good. Just like teens should read so-called adult books, so-called adults should read books shelved in YA.
2. Speaking of perspective, who really decides what shelves book belong on anyways? I mean, yes, editors are trying to sell to a certain audience and authors usually have their readers in mind as they write… but if books didn’t have that little label printed on the corner of the jacket (“Young Adult,” or even worse, “Juvenile Fiction”), would the world end?
No. Probably not. We might, however, be a little bit more open-minded about what we read. We might not smut-shame things in the romance section or make overly optimistic assumptions about the quality of novels that get put on the “Literature” shelf because they don’t have elves or spaceships or detectives or teens or graphic sex and there therefore isn’t really anywhere else to put them.
As an example, I wandered into my local Barnes & Noble recently and was checking out the Teen Fantasy and Adventure shelf when I happened across an addition to the Brandon Sanderson titles.
I did a double take.
Now Brandon does write YA, but I would know if there was something new out. There wasn’t. In fact, the “new” thing on the shelf was actually something old: Mistborn, one of his early fantasy books. It’s been over in SF/Fantasy for years. In retrospect, it does have a lot of YA things: a strong girl protagonist who’s a heroine and a thief, as well as magic, battles, romance, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. It’s a bit longer than a YA book usually is, but with the makeover they gave the cover, I suspect it’ll fit right in.
It’s a genre jumper, just like all those classics done up with Twilight-esque covers in the last few years, and hopefully it will find a whole new audience on the YA shelf. The question is: if they were originally written as YA, would we have let these titles jump the other way?
And if we hadn’t, would we have ever read them?
3. Once upon a time, you were a girl, and I can promise you that somewhere, she is still in there. The reasons that today’s fangirls read and read and read books that seem to say the same things again and again is that there is no one complete and total answer to any of the Big Questions. We spend the rest of our lives answering them.
A beautiful excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”:
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
Even though you’re all grown up, you’re still asking the questions. And these books… they still have answers.
4. This is the feminist bit.
The history of the novel begins with women who wrote because they imagined a better life. Or, if not a better life, at least a different one, one where they were better equipped to take on life.
Think about Jane Austen. We love her stories, her characters, but most of all, we love her forward-thinking ideal of romantic love in a practical age. It’s that ideal that appeals to us even to this day. But Austen herself never married. Her books imagined a world in which women could be Elizabeth Bennets and still live happily-ever-after, instead of a reality where women often took either the path of Charlotte Lucas or the path of Caroline Bingley (who I ‘ve sometimes imagined lived to be an old maid after she couldn’t win Darcy).
She shouted into the void and her readers still hear her echoing voice.
But in her time, nothing changed.
What if we read the books our girls (and by our girls, I mean the ones ten years younger than us, the ones who read YA now but who will look up to us when they’re college graduates and young professionals and wonder why we didn’t do anything to fix the problems in the world) love and we figure it out? What if we can find the echoes, find what matters, what worries them… and what if we can change their worlds?
What if we can’t, you ask? Then there is at least one small favor we owe them.
We owe it to them to stand beside them and say, “The things you care about aren’t silly. There is meaning in them. Love them and seize them and work for them. Believe in them and make them happen. Scream and cry and never shut up, not for anything, not for anyone.”