I didn’t want to read The Fault in Our Stars.
Not because it was everywhere, not because it had been done before, and not because it was a teen romance written by a man, though if I’m honest those prejudices were part of the package. The real reason was because it was about teenagers with cancer.
I have a thing about putting people with a life-threatening illness on a pedestal, and referring to someone’s “battle with cancer”. Why do we need to label it as a battle? Sometimes it’s as much as they can do just to hang on. Likewise, many stories about kids and teenagers with cancer have presented them as half-saints. This can shape people’s expectations of cancer victims, and put an even greater burden on them when they most need understanding.
So, this was my rather disparaging attitude towards The Fault in Our Stars. I’d seen the cover, read the blurb, saw it was on the New York Times best-seller list for ages, and turned up my nose.
Then one day I saw a Youtube video of John Green in Sydney. It resulted in a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:
Me: Did you know John Green had been in Australia?
Dtr: No! When?
Me: Not sure. There’s a video on Youtube of him, walking in Hyde Park, I think.
Dtr: Maybe he was here to promote The Fault in Our Stars.
Me: No, not that John Green. The one from Crash Course.
Dtr: Yeah, he wrote The Fault in Our Stars.
Me: No, not the old author guy. (Raises voice for emphasis.) The Crash Course guy.
Dtr: What old author guy? (Peering at me to determine the extent of brain damage.) The Dtr: John Green from Crash Course is the same one who wrote The Fault in Our Stars.
Me: You’re kidding.
Me: How did I not know that?
Dtr: No idea. But this particular win is going last me quite a while.
I felt stupid. How had I not linked these two John Greens together? And why had I assumed the novelist was some ‘old author guy’? Were my prejudices showing? (Coughs and decides that question is rhetorical.)
I enjoyed the Youtube Crash Course series, in which he teaches literature and history (and his brother, Hank, teaches various sciences). It’s upbeat, insightful, no crap, and demonstrates a love of words and learning. Could this guy have written a novel about teenagers with cancer that didn’t drive me insane? I went back to Youtube and sought out some interviews he’d done about the book.
The first thing I discovered was that he’d worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital for six months, during which he’d encountered a lot of kids and teens with cancer. He also often mentioned a young friend who’d had cancer. The thing that impressed me the most was the way he spoke about people with cancer – as people. Not with awe or pity, but that someone with cancer was just that, a normal person with normal interests and normal emotions, who has this horrible thing happening to them. I decided this teens-with-cancer book might be worth a look after all.
It was. Given all the hype that had surrounded it, I was surprised it more than lived up to expectations. The teenagers we get to know in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, Augustus and their friend Isaac, aren’t saints. They’re teenagers who have their own interests, hang out, laugh, get angry, take advantage of their ‘cancer perks’, and fall in love. Sometimes they try to be strong for their parents, but often can’t be. The love story is sweet but down-to-earth, shadowed always by the knowledge that it will never be a long one.
The writing is beautiful with many memorable phrases, many of which capture reactions that a diagnosis of cancer at a such a young age may induce. One that sticks with me is:
The world is not a wish-granting factory.
It’s such a succinct statement of bald reality, flipping the fairy tale on its head. Another beautifully prosaic line is:
The existence of broccoli does not affect
the taste of chocolate.
This is in relation to the oft-spouted rationalization that bad things have to happen in order for us to appreciate goodness, or “Without pain, how could we know joy?” This point has been discussed for centuries, but for those experiencing the ‘broccoli’ the discussion tends to become, if not irrelevant, then ridiculous. How does their cancer promote the experience of joy?
The Fault in Our Stars, though, is a romance at its core, though a tragic one and as unlike a Disney fairy tale as it’s possible to be while still allowing the romantic element to predominate. It deserves its success.
Since reading it, my prejudice against so-called ‘sick lit’ has been broken down to a large extent. If John Green has written about people with disease in a more realistic way, maybe other authors have too. I heard about Aussie author A.J. Betts’ novel Zac and Mia, and her job teaching kids and teenagers in an oncology ward seemed to place her in an excellent position to understand the realities of their lives better than most people. I’d been intending to read it for ages, but it wasn’t until blogger Danielle Binks posted her first #LoveOzYA Readalikes that I finally did something about it.
Like Hazel and Augustus, teenagers Zac and Mia both have cancer. They have adjacent rooms in a Perth hospital, but don’t meet face-to-face at first because Zac is in isolation after undergoing a bone marrow transplant for his leukemia. Mia is loud and angry, but they end up communicating, first through taps on the wall, then through messaging in Facebook.
It isn’t a match made in heaven; Mia isn’t letting anyone close enough to help her, and Zac doesn’t have the energy to take the crap she dishes out.
Zac and Mia isn’t a romance. It’s a story about two young people who’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them, and how they react to each other. By telling the story from both Zac and Mia’s perspectives it allows us to see two very different people with some of the same problems, and the impact of their illnesses on their lives.
I found the portrayal of Mia particularly interesting – a girl who had based all her self-worth on being beautiful and popular suddenly thrust into a world of needles, medication, surgery, and vomiting. As she starts losing her hair due to chemotherapy, she goes ballistic. Her world is falling apart, and the people around her keep telling her she’s ‘ lucky’. No one seems to understand how devastated she is.
There is no sugar-coating, and both Zac and Mia have their struggles and successes, but it’s the differing perspectives that make Zac and Mia such a strong story. Zac’s life back on the family olive farm and tourist petting zoo, and his preoccupation with cancer statistics, play against Mia’s stormy relationship with her mother, refusing to tell her friends she’s sick, and going on the run in an attempt to get as far away from her life as possible. The reader understands why each of them feel the way they do, even when they oppose one another across a wide chasm.
So how does Zac and Mia compare with The Fault in Our Stars?
||The Fault in Our Stars
|Zac and Mia
||Indianapolis and Amsterdam
W. Australian farmland
|Reality of being a teenager with cancer
|Plausibility of events
It’s inevitable that Zac and Mia will be compared to The Fault in Our Stars, because it’s about a boy and a girl who both have cancer, and it came out the year after TFIOS. In many ways that’s a shame, because if someone picks it up expecting another John Green book with the same romantic feel they’ll be disappointed.
However, if it means Zac and Mia gains more attention, as it did with me, then it should be encouraged. It’s an excellent book in its own right. Don’t expect a love story, but do expect an insightful and emotional book about a strange relationship, amid the realities of being a teenager who’s been hit by the cancer bus.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Published: January 2012
Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts
The Text Publishing Company
Published: July 2013
John Green: website, tumblr
John and Hank Green: Vlogblothers (Wikipedia), How to be a Nerdfighter (Youtube)
Crash Course: English Literature, World History, a list of other Crash Courses
A.J. Betts: website
Daniel Binks: Alphareader #LoveOzYA Readalikes
Aussie Author Challenge
Australian Women Writers Challenge