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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

You may have noticed that John Green wrote a book this year

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
Dutton, January 2012
Reviewed from final copy

This is easily one of the biggest titles of the year — six starred reviews! Big time buzz! John Green! Previous Printz winner! Nerdfighters! — so we’ve been thinking about it for a while. Since this is a book from a former Printz winner and honoree, we knew we’d be reading it with our Printz glasses on. When you add the serious subject matter, the thoughtful treatment of said subject matter, the memorable characters, and the five-hanky tear-jerker of a plot, you know there’s a lot to talk about in terms of Printz-worthiness.

Hazel has terminal cancer. Augustus is a cancer survivor who has lost a leg to the disease. They meet in a teen cancer support group. It’s complicated and baggage-filled love almost at first sight. She doesn’t want to die on him; he wants to save everyone. It’s clearly a recipe for heartbreaking disaster. Their mutual love of (fictional) Peter Van Hauten’s (fictional) An Imperial Affliction gives the two an excuse for a road trip, but plot happens and PLOT PLOT PLOT.

When you read a John Green book, you know that the writing is going to be shiny and sharp. The dialogue will be rapid-fire and dramatically intelligent. Fault does not disappoint. Augustus and Hazel engage in electrifying debates (he fears oblivion; she choses to ignore it) and hilarious reparte (“The day of the existentially fraught free throws was coincidentally also my last day of dual leggedness,” Augustus says).

Actually, that second quote is pretty magnificent: intelligent, wry, but wrapped in sadness. Gus, Hazel, their friend Isaac: all of them casually shrug off Cancer Perks (trips to Disneyland, autographed basketballs) while attempting to grapple with the pitfalls of teenagerdom and, you know, also mortality. The teen characters are smart, funny, and determined to maintain their dignity and kindness. Hazel describes the horrible awareness kids with cancer have: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Green’s depiction of friendship is dead-on (as usual, although of course that has nothing to do with Printz conversation). Hazel, Gus, and Isaac, as a threesome, are sarcastic, honest, and loving with each other. Minor characters, like Gus’s parents and Hazel’s friend Kaitlyn, have very limited page time, but are still memorable and well drawn. This is a teen book with really (like, really) fantastic parental characterization.

Hazel and Augustus’s weighty conversations and observations allow Green to weave many themes together. The idea in the title, the fault in our stars, the harmatia that lives in all of us shows up in so many different ways and through different images (people as grenades; broken, drunk and abusive Van Hauten; cancer itself) and doesn’t feel forced or false. There is a lot in this book to love.

Unfortunately, there is a problem. Van Houten, the author of An Imperial Affliction, the person Gus and Hazel travel to Amsterdam to see, comes back for the [REDACTED EVENT, in case you live under a rock, but know that comments are fair game for spoilers]. So much weaksauce. Early on in the novel, Hazel tries to describe her love for An Imperial Affliction:

“But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer curing legacy.”

But the decision to bring Van Hauten back makes this book suddenly feel like A Cancer Book — full of lessons and realizations and Important Character Growth. It’s cliche and I believe it severely weakens the integrity of the book.

I still cried, believe me. The eulogies on command scene? Tears. The last letter at the end? Tears. This book is powerful, strongly written, and has so much good stuff going on. But Van Hauten’s reappearance occurs at a crucial moment in the book, and feels too pat and perfect. It changes Fault from something that is transforming the cliches of a cancer book into a Cancer Book. Printz winners are books that move beyond what we expect, and the Van Hautening has the opposite effect.

However, there is so much good in this book, so much that is extraordinary. Is the flaw forgivable? Is that small portion of the plot forgivable? Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Printz room!

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Anoni Mouse says:

    I had quite a few more problems than you did, Sarah, although I think the language in this book is extraordinary, and John Green has a truly exquisite ear (“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”). Van Houten was a cartoonish, catastrophic mistake in this beautiful novel, but to some extent Amsterdam was, too, in that it became a kind of Disneyland tour: witness the perfect English of the cab driver’s philosophic lecture about the rings of Amsterdam being like a tree and freedom leading to sin; the stranger on the bus talking about the “spring snow” of Amsterdam and the elms throwing flower petals like “confetti to greet the spring;” the boyish waiter’s quote of Dom Perignon, “‘I am tasting the stars!’ Welcome to Amsterdam.”; not to mention the afterschool-movie scene in which the other guests at the Ann Frank house clap for our lovers when they kiss.

    Number two.An Imperial Affliction wasn’t a strong enough concept; I was not invested in the missing ending. I felt that the Tulip Man, the mother, and the hamster became sound bites, and an excuse to get us on the road. Perhaps that was deliberate, to show us that in obsessing about the damage she leaves behind, Hazel becomes fixated on an unremarkable book that not many people have read. But it was a weak spot for me, because it didn’t tie in well with the universal theme of the book, that (and I’ll quote my friend, who said it better than me) “everything we love will someday cease to exist,” and that these two young people face that fact more directly than many of us.

    Number three: the dialogue. In this case, in this book, I think the brilliant, witty, snarky language of the teens–so ubiquitous in John Green’s work–sometimes damaged his cause rather than helped. There was much lip service to their not being special snowflakes, and then they quoted entire stanzas of poetry to each other and spoke like eloquent savants (even when she dials 911?). But worse: the language between them–witty, formal, smart–was a sort of emotional barricade to the intimacy that I craved between them. Your own example of “hilarious repartee” is perfect for my point, Sarah: a snarky comment about his amputation once is fine, but eventually I want to hear them speak to each other about their feelings and fears in an authentic way, not an isolating and (don’t shoot me!) pretentious way.

    Number four: my biggest complaint, actually. I felt manipulated by the book, like I was being made to cry. The teens didn’t feel real to me throughout most of the story–because of the distance their language created (between them and me, and between themselves), and because of the almost stylized quest they were on, and the ridiculousness of Van Houten that made me roll my eyes–and as a result I was sure I would not cry. But the emotional baggage I have about cancer (that almost all adults have with cancer) yanked it out of me, and yes, I resented that. I felt like John channeled his truly formidable writing skill toward that goal, knowing that most readers equate crying with meaningfulness.

    Number five: I was perplexed by the final “treasure hunt” for Gus’s last words to Hazel (ripped from the journal). Why would Gus reach out to a man he called a douchebag to write her eulogy, rather than reach out to the girl he loved? His own description of her was amply beautiful, belying his claim not to be qualified to write it. I thought perhaps John worried that a less-than-65,000-word novel would not be long enough, and he had to send Hazel on another quest?

    Number six: what do we make of the fact that Van Houten confirms Hazel’s worst fear? (He and his own family did in fact fall apart because of the death of his daughter.) How does that fit in with Hazel’s mother quietly anticipating and preparing for her post-Hazel life? Everything in a book should be there for a reason. Why is Van Houten’s failure in there?

    Number seven: and this is really the last thing, I promise. There were tiny errors that pulled me out of the action, and have no place in such high caliber work. Hazel is able to pull herself out of the driver’s side window of a car to take a photo (when she can’t offer a little girl a turn with her oxygen mask without feeling weak); she describes clouds as windy and freezing, and then later when she has difficulty breathing she says “the air was thick and still like we were in a cloud”; the “17th century” Dutch process for cocoa supposedly made Van Houten rich, but it’s virtually impossible for a family to keep their wealth that long (also, not to be persnickety, but the real Van Houten family perfected the Dutch process in 1828).

    But I did cry (copiously). And I did absolutely love John Green’s mastery of the language. It’s almost like the guy barely has to try to create a thing of beauty. (Which makes me want to see him stretch himself by writing science fiction, or historical fiction, or fantasy, or…something out of his usual range.)

  2. I agree with basically everything said by Anoni above – I think the whole book was rife with flaws, not least the fact that every single character sounded exactly the same (ie, like John and Hank Green). But I disagree with one point: I didn’t cry. Never even considered it. I thought Augustus’s death was *very* poorly done. It felt like an afterthought – oh yeah, one of these kids has to die so this can be a “cancer book.” Compare (I know we can’t!) to something like BEFORE I DIE, and the emotion and feeling about cancer and death felt very shallow to me.

  3. But the committee will be able to compare this to ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL which makes a teen dying of cancer a truly hilarious experience (and as the narrator often points out no one falls in love, learns anything, or changes!).

  4. Totally agree with your critique of the novel. I thought the whole Van Houten part of the plot was flawed. What really bugged me, though, was the characterization of Gus. He was just too perfect! Didn’t seem like a real person at all to me. Loved Hazel though and the book DID make me cry, I will fully admit. I liked The Fault in Our Stars very much, but it does not seem Printz worthy to me. I must chime in with Eric’s statement as well. I read The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl around the same time and thought Me and Earl was a better book all around.

  5. I generally liked the book, but I did feel that the veneer of sophistication and self-awareness kept me from really being immersed in it. I’m comparing it specifically with Code Name Verity (which I know we haven’t talked about yet, sorry), where I lost all awareness of the characters as fictional. I was always aware that Hazel and Gus were fictional. I do think that Green does a number of neat things with setting and images. I also live in Indianapolis, so it was both nice and deeply weird to read about my city fictionalized. But again, I couldn’t help noticing that it was fictional, that Hazel’s Indy is not my Indy.

    And it’s hard to separate any Green book from Green himself. I assume that this is one of the things the Printz committee shouldn’t take into account…but how easy is that?

  6. My comment above seems to now be missing the context of the comment which was originally above it. Some of the salient points with which I agreed (and now I bring up as my own):

    1) The escapade in Amsterdam was strange and ill-conceived. Waiters, cabdrivers, and anyone Gus and Hazel met seemed to have poetry or something to quote about the city. The original commenter called it a Disneyland version of Amsterdam – again, I agree.

    2) The whole conceit of An Imperial Affliction was weak. Personally, I think it would have been far superior if Green could have found a real book to tie into his book, but granted that he was creating it from whole-cloth, it just never struck me as very compelling. I saw (I guess) why Hazel cared about the book, but I never saw any reason *I* should care about the book. (Also – Gus seemed to be able to memorize whole chunks of it pretty quickly – dont’ know many people, let along teens who can do that).

    3) The strange treasure hunt for Gus’s final words seemed like just a throwaway to add some extra tension at the end

    There was more in that original post (and more eloquently said) but those are the main points I wanted to bring back up so others can discuss them.

  7. First things first: didn’t cry. Not because I didn’t feel this book was emotional…but I think the WHOLE book was emotional. I think I need to be surprised by emotion to cry. I’m weird like that.

    I don’t know that Van Houten coming back in the end bothered me. I don’t think this single act makes it a “cliche cancer book”. I think it would be impossible to write a book on cancer – well, write a book about characters you’re going to LIKE – having cancer – and not have some peripheral character affected by the loss. True, Van Houten’s is a Grand Gesture but what part of Van Houten seemed based in reality anyway? I had more trouble with the depiction of Van Houten as a character than I did with his final trip.

    And in so far as this act now asks the reader to ‘learn a lesson’. I think throughout the text Green is asking the reader to look deeper, to find lessons. The fact that he warns the reader not to do this very thing in the preface to the book simply ingrained in my mind the need to read between the lines for good nuggets.

    And maybe it’s a fault in the text. But ultimately it was a cancer book. No matter what. Had no one died it would have been unrealistic or unfinished (depending on how we leave everyone still breathing). Somebody had to die, and I think someone had to be affected by that. Again, these were likeable people. People connect with likeable people. Someone was going to use this death as a turning point. Might as well be the unrealistic character of the bunch – might as well be that the death brought Van Houten back to a trace of reality. Could we have left his character as is in Amsterdam? I think I’d have to reread to decide…

  8. I don’t know how to explain my main complaint in this (pretty fantastic) contender. I think Hannahlily may have it with Augutus being too perfect. I loved Hazel, but I never felt much for the romance. It seemed very ordinary and flirted with cliches way too many times. But, I still really like it; it’s funny and smart and will probably be one of the most remembered books published this year. Also, is the committee allowed to take the difficulty of writing it into consideration? This book’s balance between humor and tragedy and trying to avoid cancer book cliches would be insanely difficult, and Green pulled it off in almost all elements. Could the committee be more forgiving because of that? (Also, I don’t think it will win. The committee would probably rather award lesser-known novels.)

  9. Hope Baugh says:

    I need to read TFIOS another time before commenting on it as a Printz contenda, but I thought some readers here might be interested in the story that the Indianapolis Star did on John Green as an Indy resident this past weekend. Is it okay to post a link? Let’s see…

    http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012209300321

  10. CancerSurvivor says:

    When I found this book, I was extremely excited there was one like it, considering that I’m a cancer survivor. You guys are all criticizing the writing from a cancer survivors point of view saying it was ‘too sophisticated’ or ‘knowing’ or ‘mature’ blahblahblah. But guys, I had cancer when I was 4. Leukemia actually. And I’m only- well, I’ll give you a range. 11,12, or 13. And the characters were 16 and 17. The put words to the thoughts I’ve been having for quite some time. And that’s not saying that the writing made them sound childish, cuz it didn’t: the author added on more mature and older ways of looking at things, philosophy. But the things they said, the way they thought, was so real, so true, that I read up every bit of it. I LOVED it. I even liked the Van Houten part. I thought there was a little difference in writing, but I was just happy that they didn’t make the experience go smoothly and perfectly- that was the thing I was worried about. I appreciated that there was a book like this out there, and surprised that a non-cancer survivor could write one so well. So guys, if you don’t know, you don’t know. It was fantastic.

  11. CancerSurvivor says:

    Oops, sorry, one more thing. I miss-read the Van Houten part. Him coming back at the end surprised me, but didn’t upset me. I started to question whether or not he would change so easily when he started getting super sad, or looked like he wasn’t going to drink. But the fact that he did pick the bottle up again seemed more logical, you know? It just made more sense for someone as stubborn as he was in the beginning to falter. I liked that there was character development with him though. It had a type of character closure, instead of just making you think that he was going to be a mess forever and be a drunk. And I didn’t mean sound childish- cuz my age isn’t necessarily childish. I meant they didn’t sound younger than they actually were. Sorry for coming up with another things to say

  12. I was one of those people who really loved the Fault in Our Stars. While I’m not hear to defend the book (that would be futile as all these critiques are obviously well thought out and valid) I would like to say that I disagree with those who liked Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl more. Was it less of a “cancer book” than the Fault in Our Stars? Yes. But in my opinion, the overall quality of the books don’t really compare. I characterize Me, Earl etc. as an extremely strong debut, but the Fault in Our Stars as an extremely strong book. I don’t know if anyone else understand what I’m mean when I say that though…Anyway, I also agree with the person above who said that self awareness kept me from being totally immersed in the book. I’ll also agree that the Van Houten ending, while I don’t think it’s an aspect that defines the novel as a “cancer book” was not necessarily needed. But for me, these faults are too small for me to not consider this one of my favorite books. In addition, this book is something, that, even though the last time I read it was over the summer, is a book that I cannot get out of my head. Out of all the books, I’ve read this year, it’s probably the one I’ve thought the most about.
    For this reason I’m currently rooting for the Fault in Our Stars to win the Printz. That being said, I don’t think I’ll be able to decide if it completely deserves it until I read Code Name Variety.

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