John Green’s Novels for Teens and Young Adults
By Brooke Thompson
Since John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, he has been revered as one of the best teen writers. His novels are coming-of-age stories that explore different aspects of adolescence like mental health, grief, loss, friendship, and sexuality.
John Green treats each topic with respect and sensitivity to his audience. The books will definitely make you cry, but they will also make you laugh and possibly question the meaning of life.
The tone varies depending on each book. Some of his books like Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are more lighthearted, while some of his stories like Looking for Alaska, Fault in Our Stars, and Turtles All the Way Down are melancholic.
In this article, we will be comparing Looking for Alaska to The Fault in Our Stars, and discussing how they are both literary masterpieces. While coming-of-age tales and tragic love stories are not new concepts within the realm of fiction, John Green improves on these tropes with amazing stories. And here are strong reasons John Green’s novels for teens and young adults will never get old.
John Green’s Novels for Teens and Young Adults –Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars at a Glance
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Looking for Alaska
When I first heard of Looking for Alaska, I did not anticipate it blowing me away. Based on the novel’s blurb, I expected it to be a boy-meets-girl kind of story with some life lesson about heartbreak – the pretty generic plotline seen in every romance novel or movie.
However, I was very wrong. I learned that on the first page when I discovered the novel was formatted differently than most books. Looking for Alaska is split into two parts: Before and After. Instead of chapters, there are small headings that say, “x amount of hours of days before/after.”
At first, I found this characteristic annoying until I realized how it really adds suspense to the novel. It makes the reader go, “x amount of hours before what?” The book’s blurb does not even hint at what happens later.
Looking for Alaska’s Plot
For those who have not read or watched Looking For Alaska, it’s an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. It’s about a lonely, socially awkward boy named Miles “Pudge” Halter who transfers to a new school to seek a “Great Perhaps.” He goes on misadventures with his friends, like sneaking out of class to go to McDonald’s or playing pranks on the principal.
That is, until Alaska, the main female character and Miles’s love interest, tragically dies in a car accident. Whether her death was an accident or a suicide is up to the discretion of the reader, but that’s what makes John Green’s writing so brilliant. He does not give clear answers to questions in his stories, which really makes the reader think.
For the rest of the story, Pudge and his friends deal with their friend’s death and grief. Green pokes fun at the tropes of everyone saying nice things about the deceased, and how everyone clamors to say they knew the victim just to gain popularity.
Looking for Alaska’s Characters
Looking for Alaska’s characters are well-written. They were not caricatures or even followed any main archetypes. Green writes his characters as individuals, as people I could easily picture as my peer.
Let’s take Pudge’s character for example. Green gives him a classic character arc – a lonely boy who gains confidence in himself to make friends and ask out his crush.
Green first illustrates how lonely Pudge is by having only two people show up to his going away party, who were more like close acquaintances than actual friends. When the protagonist arrives at his new school, he makes up scenarios in his head and almost rehearses what he says to avoid embarrassment.
However, Miles does a 180 once he is introduced to his roommate Chip, who prefers to be called “the Colonel.” He introduces Miles to his other friends: the titular Alaska and Takumi, who adopt him into their circle. Soon Miles comes out of his shell and starts to become the life of the party. He even starts helping them plan pranks and is involved in setting them up.
It’s devastating to watch this change in the “After” part of the novel where Miles is depressed after learning about Alaska’s death. He fights with the Colonel and Takumi about who loved her more, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that Alaska is gone.
What made Looking for Alaska especially interesting is how Green gives these characters some interesting quirks.
For example, the Colonel will mix vodka in his milk to hide the smell and despises his schoolmates, called “Week-Day Warriors”, who are students that go home on the weekends. What is funny about his character is that he dates a Week-Day Warrior, despite his prejudice against them.
Alaska is a free-spirited girl who collects books but doesn’t read them because she has better things to do. Takumi is a Japanese boy who considers himself to be a “hip hop emcee.”
Since Green gives his characters these quirks, they seem like real people. Typically a protagonist’s friend in literature is two-dimensional since they are a supporting character. However, in the case of Looking for Alaska, they seem like fully fleshed out characters.
The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars was the second John Green book I had read. I was amazed by the novel’s content as it seemed to take a different approach to grief and mental health issues. While a lot of stories focus on a character coping with their problems in either healthy or unhealthy ways, The Fault in Our Stars shows someone who is simply blaise about it.
The Fault in Our Stars’s Plot and How It Addresses Mental Health
For those who have not read or seen The Fault in Our Stars, it is about a 16-year-old girl named Hazel Lancaster, who has lung cancer. She later falls in love with a boy from her support group, Augustus Waters, who is in remission from cancer. Her mother worries about her, as she notices her daughter is depressed since she rarely eats, sleeps a lot, and only reads the same book “The Imperial Affliction” over and over again.
Hazel admits in the book that “depression is not a side effect of cancer, but rather a side effect of dying.”
Green really follows the “show, don’t tell” rule to a tee as he shows Hazel’s depression rather than telling us about it. We see it in how she interacts with the other characters and even in her own environment.
For example, her mom tells her that she has to go to a cancer support group, which she refuses because she does not see the point of it. Hazel does not want to get close to anyone because she considers herself “a grenade” – she does not want to die and cause any suffering on her end. Even when Augustus shows interest in dating her, she is scared of hurting him whenever she dies.
Speaking of Augustus, let’s discuss his character for a moment. He is the complete opposite of Hazel. For three-fourths of the book, he is a happy-go-lucky, goofy character that breaks through Hazel’s walls. His weird quirk is that he’ll take a cigarette and put it in his mouth, yet doesn’t light it. He explains that he only does this to acknowledge that cigarettes kill people, but since he doesn’t light it, he isn’t giving it the power to kill him.
Here, Green could be using the unlit cigarette as a metaphor for depression. Depression can bog us down, make us not want to socialize or really care what it is going on in the world. We are the ones giving depression the power to control our lives. However, by acknowledging that we have it and finding ways to cope with it, we are taking away its power.
Augustus’s parents have embroidered platitudes all over the house that they call “encouragements.” Here, Green could have been trying to say that these encouragements represent how society tends to try and put a band-aid on mental health issues by telling people to be positive or that with a little effort, you can overcome anything.
While that is good advice for anything, it’s trickier for mental health, especially, as this novel points out, depression. A person is aware that they could improve or they have to be positive. However, since depression affects the brain, it can be difficult for someone to see the bright side or even want to try if a situation seems dire.
The Heartbreaking Truth of The Fault in Our Stars
The book explores other aspects of humanity, outside of mental health. For example, it talks about how in life, no matter how privileged you are, the world does not owe you anything, which is an unfortunate heartbreaking truth. Hazel and Augustus learn this lesson when they travel to Amsterdam and visit the setting of “An Imperial Affliction” and Hazel’s favorite author, Peter Van Houten.
Unfortunately, the author has no intentions of really interacting with them or answering their questions about “An Imperial Affliction”. While Hazel shouts at Peter Van Houten, he reminds her that the world is not a wish-granting factory and kicks her out of the house.
From that point on, the book spirals into chaos. While Hazel and Augustus explore Amsterdam, he reveals to her that he, too, is dying of cancer despite being in remission for the last two years.
It is heartbreaking to read how Hazel, who was trying to distance herself from love, learns that she was actually trying to avoid grief. However, she was hit with that fact after Augustus’s death. She seems to realize that when Peter Van Houten shows up at the funeral and gives Hazel the obituary that Augustus forced him to write for her.
How Do Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars Compare to Each Other?
While Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars share similar themes of loss, grief, and mental health, each focuses on a different aspect of it. John Green’s brilliant writing adds nuance to these tropes by showing how society reacts to them, and that’s what is intriguing about John Green’s novels for teens and young adults.
For example, in Looking for Alaska, students were tripping over each other to say how Alaska touched their lives or how they saw signs of her around the school, despite many of them despising her while she was alive. This shows how tragic stories get sensationalized all for the sake of attention.
In The Fault in Our Stars, everyone reacts in a particular way to someone with cancer. They stop treating them like people, but rather an object to be catered to. This is shown in the beginning of the novel where Augustus talks about failing his driver’s test three times before getting his license, despite being a terrible driver.
Or, later in the story, Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam, thanks to the Make-A-Wish foundation, and the only way they were able to meet Peter Van Houten was because his secretary invited them to see him.
Despite the books having similar themes, each story focuses on different aspects of death. In Looking for Alaska, the novel hones in on human suffering. Before Alaska’s death, she asks Pudge to explain to her what French author Simon Bolivar meant when he said:
He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
It isn’t until much later in the novel that Alaska uses this as a metaphor for human suffering: everyone is always looking for a way out, yet no one truly ever escapes.
Pudge learns this lesson the hard way when Alaska suddenly dies and he must cope with her death. The only way Pudge made it out of the labyrinth is by acknowledging his pain and accepting the fact Alaska is gone.
Since the novel deals with themes of loss and grief, it’s understandable why John Green had chosen human suffering as a theme in his novel.
On the other hand, The Fault in Our Stars’s main focus is death, or rather the fear of it. While it is apparent Augustus and Hazel are very aware of their own mortality, each handles it very differently.
Hazel is terrified of death in the sense that she does not want to cause her loved ones grief, which is why she pushes everyone away and scared of falling in love with Augustus.
Augustus is terrified of death in the sense that it is final, which explains 1) why he always put an unlit cigarette in his mouth, 2) went ahead and traveled to Amsterdam with Hazel to meet Peter Van Houten, and 3) later begged the author to write Hazel’s obituary.
Despite each novel’s differences, Green does an excellent job of juggling complex issues and creating beautifully crafted stories. Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars are literary masterpieces.
While there are many teen books that deal with loss and grief, these novels are the rare ones that actually make the reader feel the protagonists’ pain while handling the topics with sensitivity.