From the archive: 5 June 2014
I read The Fault in Our Stars over Christmas (it was a gift to myself). In fact, I very rudely sat outside in the sun, while my partner and his family were inside in the middle of Christmas lunch celebrations. I couldn’t put the book down, not even on Christmas Day.
(See this picture? That’s me stretched out between two camping chairs while trifle is being served inside.)
What impressed me most about The Fault in Our Stars was the dialogue.
John Green’s teens are smart, witty and intellectual. If you write young adult fiction you’ll understand just how wonderful this is.
When I finish a draft of a novel I always send it to a few trusted readers to critique before I start revisions. A point that sometimes pops up is that the characters sound too adult.
Yes, we live in a world of abbreviations and tech-speak. It’s all LOL and BRB and one-word questions like “seriously?” “really?” and “am I right?” But a few lines of lingo don’t sum up the essence of a teenager.
Teenagers are hungry for literature. The demand for Green’s fiction proves this. They’re smart. They absorb words. Whenever I visit a friend in Muizenberg I take along a bag of books for her adolescent daughter. She can’t read them fast enough.
Let’s do a little Throwback Thursday here.
At sixteen I was really into books. Big time. I could quote Poe; would write lines of Elvish on my schoolbag with a Tippex pen and report back to my English teacher on the latest Terry Pratchett novel. We would laugh at the witticisms while my classmates looked at me like I was a Martian.
A few years ago I found an old notebook featuring some of the stories I wrote as a teenager. It was incredible to see my thoughts scrawled between those faint blue lines. Teenage Sally was brimming with ideas and passion; trying to make sense of the world and developing an understanding of life… and love.
I can’t quote much poetry today. Maybe one or two lines from The Raven and The Walrus and The Carpenter, and I do a fair rendition of Wilfred Owen’s Greater Love, but that’s about it. So when someone says teen dialogue should be less intellectual, I think back to my sixteen-year-old self and wonder if she would read a book featuring dumbed-down dialogue. The answer is probably not.
Here’s an excerpt from The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel is everything a teen should be; smart, funny, nervous, scared, unsure of herself, curious – and a hundred other things besides. Her unique view of the world makes her one of my favorite young adult characters of all time. And one of the most genuine.
When it was my turn, I said, “My name is Hazel. I’m sixteen. Thyroid with mets in my lungs. I’m okay.”
The hour proceeded apace: Fights were recounted, battles won amid wars sure to be lost; hope was clung to; families were both celebrated and denounced; it was agreed that friends just didn’t get it; tears were shed; comfort proffered.
Neither Augustus Waters nor I spoke again until Patrick said, “Augustus, perhaps you’d like to share your fears with the group.”
“I fear oblivion,” he said without a moment’s pause. “I fear it like the proverbial blind man who’s afraid of the dark.”
“Too soon,” Isaac said, cracking a smile.
“Was that insensitive?” Augustus asked. “I can be pretty blind to other people’s feelings.”
Isaac was laughing, but Patrick raised a chastening finger and said, “Augustus, please. Let’s return to you and your struggles. You said you fear oblivion?”
“I did,” Augustus answered.
Patrick seemed lost. “Would, uh, would anyone like to speak to that?”
I hadn’t been in proper school in three years. My parents were my two best friends. My third best friend was an author who did not know I existed. I was a fairly shy person–not the hand-raising type. And yet, just this once, I decided to speak. I half raised my hand and Patrick, his delight evident, immediately said, “Hazel!” I was, I’m sure he assumed, opening up.
I looked over at Augustus Waters, who looked back at me. You could almost see through his eyes they were so blue.
“There will come a time,” I said, “when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this”–I gestured encompassingly–”will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”