The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
The Fault in Our Stars is debatably the most popular young adult novel of today. The title comes from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar in which Cassius says to Brutus: T he fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings. The story focuses on a 16-year-old cancer patient, Hazel Grace Lancaster, who meets and falls in love with August, a 17-year-old ex-basketball player who has unfortunately lost his leg due to Osteosarcoma. The two meet at a support group session where they instantly form a connection and agree to exchange their favorite novels. Hazel recommends a novel that has a storyline similar to Hazel’s real-life experience: it is titled An Imperial Affliction and is about a young girl who struggles with cancer. August reads the novel, but he is not satisfied: the novel doesn’t seem to have any closure, which is disturbing. It turns out that the author left it unfinished, but it was published anyway. Hazel and August start a correspondence with the author, asking him questions about the book, clearly in an attempt to connect the dots and get a fuller understanding of the storyline, but implicitly about real-life, too. The author says he can only answer their questions in private, so August surprises Hazel with tickets to Amsterdam in order to meet him. The two go on the trip of their lives, and it turns out that they were corresponding with the author’s assistant, not the author himself. The assistant (Lidewij) admits that she only wanted to protect them, since Van Houten (the author) is a drunkard with a temper. The novel continues with August admitting his love for Hazel:
“I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.
“Augustus,” I said.
“I am,” he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. “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.”
Thanks to their experience with illness, the love that August and Hazel experience is much more mature than the typical love of young people their age. They have to grow up really fast and pretty early in their lives, and they understood what truly matters. They are tied to their specific situations because of their health realities, as they are in the last analysis misfits who don’t belong to the normal teenage world. The two become closer than ever, but the novel has a tragic end, unfortunately. In the end, Green steps away from the cliché of the happy ending and offers one that is more realistic, making the novel weighty, complex, and unforgettable.
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Five years ago, this novel took the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Thirteen Reasons Why speaks up about the weight of depression and really opens up our eyes when it comes to treating the people we encounter the right way. Very often, we are completely unaware of the way our actions affect others, so we may hurt them without even knowing. The storyline of Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on the reasons for committing suicide, in the case of a girl named Hannah. Hannah suffered through a pretty typical puberty, but she suffers a lot through events that just keep piling up, with her classmates being awful to her or others, on different accounts. Hannah was extremely sensitive and depressed because she continuously wanted more from life, but was put down by others in many different ways and left disappointed. The major part of her pain exists because of her reputation for being a promiscuous girl, although she never was. Her inability to connect with her surroundings, as well as people letting her down all the time, leads to Hannah’s suicide. She leaves a suicide note, but in the form of thirteen different tapes. A classmate she believed she could trust is responsible for distributing these tapes to thirteen different persons. On each one of them, Hannah explains how the recipient was involved in her decision to take away her life, describing the influences of his or her behavior in the world as Hannah saw it. Various stories are told this way, but the one in the focus is Clay’s. Clay is a rather shy youngster who is somewhat apart from the others on the list, although he is present. Clay was her love interest, and at one house party where the two were making out, he tried to take it to the next level. Hannah reacted turbulently because of her previous experiences and pushed Clay away. He tried to comfort her, but then left her crying:
I hardly knew Hannah Baker. I mean, I wanted to. I wanted to know her more than I had the chance. Over the summer, we worked together at the movie theater. And not long ago, at the party, we made out. But we never had the chance to get closer. And not once did I take her for granted. Not once. These tapes shouldn’t be here. Not with me. It has to be a mistake.
Because of the perpetual silence, Hannah never knew how Clay truly felt about her. She only assumed: if she had really known, maybe it would have been a reason for her not to throw her life away. Clay is determined to find out the whole story and can’t stop thinking about Hannah. He contemplates his actions through the novel and is in deep distress because of Hannah’s suicide. At the end, he reaches out to a classmate who is struggling and contemplating suicide, too.
It is interesting to note that Jay Asher had the idea for the novel right after one of his museum visits. He was listening to an audio tour and was moved by the fact that the woman’s voice was describing everything his eyes could see and touch, but was not there.
The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen
This novel is about the complexity of life, about how our expectations often go unfulfilled and how the most unexpected scenario is the most likely one. The story focuses on Macy, a young girl who suddendly loses her father. Her new life is hard for her to adapt to, so Macy turns to silence and gives up running. She is a sensitive girl who only seeks honest comfort and compassion, but hates being pitied. She is disappointed in the people around her, over and over again:
My dad died. And I was there. This is how people knew me. […] I was Macy Queen who’d woken up the day after Chirstmas and gone outside to see her father splayed out at the end of the road, a stranger pumping away at his broad chest. I saw my dad die. That was who I was now.
At first, she turns to her boyfriend, Jason, who is away at camp. She corresponds with him about everyday stuff, seeking support. However, Jason gives her a cold shoulder and proposes a break in their relationship, which leaves Macy heartbroken. She feels a sudden desire to change her life completely, so she starts small, by getting a job at the Wish Catering. There she meets another boy, a coworker named Wes. Gradually, the two become close, especially after being stranded together when their van breaks down. There, they play the game of truth and find out more about each other. Macy’s mother is against this (primarily friendship) relationship because she feels neglected and doesn’t like the fact that Macy is turning away from her family. Eventually, as in life – things start going better, as Macy revitalizes her bond with her mother, finds the love she deserves, and goes back to running, making peace with her father’s death.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
This young adult novel, written in the form of a diary, is about the trauma of rape and the dangers of keeping quiet about it. It focuses on the life of a high school freshman, a young girl named Melinda Sordino. The novel problematizes the notion of trauma, as Melinda is unable to communicate the horror she’s been through. At a party one summer, she is raped by a guy named Andy Evans. Melinda calls the police, but cannot speak of what happened. Her peers misinterpret what happens, as Melinda stays quiet. She becomes an outcast and highly introverted, slowly sinking into depression:
I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears?
Melinda fights in the no man’s land between two poles: her wish to tell the truth and her denial of what happened. During high school, she is a misfit who finds comfort in solitude and art. Art therapy plays a great role here: she manages to speak up, although not through her words but through her artwork. Her classmate, David, encourages her to step out of her silence. After a few plot twists, the truth is revealed and Melinda finds her peace. The story follows the transformation of Melinda as the main character: after being raped, she is at first extremely vulnerable and weak due to the enormous trauma she has survived. Gradually, she finds bits of strength everywhere and manages to speak up. This is a great young adult novel that focuses on the situation of the victim and encourages readers to discard the taboos that surround these topics and throw away isolation and silence.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini
This novel was turned into a successful, humorous movie that managed to capture the essence of the story. Life has unexpected roads to happiness, it is utterly strange and often makes fools of us. In the focus of the story is a 15-year-old named Craig, who narrates the story. He is a high school student at the renowned Executive Pre-Professional High School. Craig suffers through increasing academic pressure, which causes further problems like eating disorders, excesses, and eventually – depression. Other issues, such as unrequited love and feelings that come with being an outsider seem to pile up. His attempts to cope with it have been insufficient, so he ends up in a psychiatric institution. This experience helps him to get a more objective look at his problems and start learning to appreciate the small things. Encounters with other patients represent the most important influence on Craig’s process of maturing and getting better. Among others, Craig meets Noelle, a girl who has suffered through sexual abuse and was cutting her face with scissors in an attempt to cope with the trauma. Eventually, the two start a relationship that helps them both to solve their problems. Just like in The Fault in Our Stars, the two are connected because of their similarities: they are both misfits, isolated from the world, living lives different from most of the teenagers they know. Depression is the main theme here:
It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.
Vizzini was inspired to write this novel by his own mental problems. He ended up in a psychiatric hospital in November, 2004. There is a strong message here: mental illness is not a topic you should hide under the rug. It needs to be discussed, since a person can never get better without an outer perspective.
These five young adult novels are among the best contemporary writings out there. They definitely deserve your attention and shouldn’t be missed. The topics discussed here are very serious, and they should be in our focus even outside of literature.