In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, July 23, 2012

John Green's intelligent name-dropping

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In my ongoing reveling in the extra reading time afforded by summer, I read two John Green books last week in three days.  They made me want to go right out and find everything else he's written -- I'm a convert.  That's not to say that I'm diving into the Nerdfighter world myself, but Green's appeal to smart YA readers is crystal clear.

I'd previously read Will Grayson, Will Grayson; last week, I finally read The Fault in Our Stars, after being exhorted to check it out by a few of my students, and followed it up with
Looking for Alaska
, which won Green a Printz Award in 2005.

What strikes me about all three of these books is their intelligence, their smooth incorporation of complex intellectual ideas into readable, compelling narratives.  In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the Will Grayson written by John Green uses the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment: a cat is put inside a steel box with a small amount of radioactive material, which may or may not decay over the course of an hour, causing the release of acid which would kill the cat.  Before opening the box, the idea is that the cat has an equal chance of being alive or being dead -- that it is both alive and dead at the same time.  Green applies this idea to the growing relationship (or is it not a relationship?) between Will and a girl named Jane, who spend much of the book dancing around each other.  In The Fault in Our Stars, we get Zeno's Paradox (the one about Achilles and the tortoise) and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  In Looking for Alaska, there are extended meditations on the reputed last words of Francois Rabelais: "I go to seek the Great Perhaps," and about Buddhist philosophy. There are also literary quotes and references up one side and down the other: Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, T.S. Eliot, the list goes on. 

Green doesn't make this name-dropping feel obnoxious.  It's sometimes the narrator who introduces the complex concept or quote, sometimes another character who gets the narrator thinking about the idea for the first time.  There's a spirit of inquiry and pleasure in ideas throughout.  There's also that excellent YA sense of sticking with a narrator who's a bit of an outsider, an observer, as he or she works to find a place in a community.

Both Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars deal quite directly with teenage death, and more specifically with the deaths of characters you really care about.  They aren't light reads, but they leave you thinking.  I can imagine each of them encouraging teenage readers to pick up the other materials referenced, and go further on their own.

Love, Annie


  1. I am a convert as well. I LOVED The Fault in Our Stars, so immediately read and enjoyed Will Grayson/Will Grayson. Tomorrow I'm picking up An Abundance of Katherines. Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy!

  2. Looking for Alaska is one of my favorite books, but I still haven't been able to finish it. I get about halfway through, and can't keep going. Have either of you ever had to put down a book because it was too good or hit too close to home?
    I'm so happy to come back to the blog to see posts about both John Green and children's books featuring gay parents.