Why John Green Just Gets It

by Iva-Marie Palmer

Photo credit: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

Is author John Green the king of young adult literature? With five award-winning, bestselling teen novels to his name (the latest of which, The Fault in Our Stars, is a favorite among both teens and adults), it would seem he’s due the honor.

But Green, by turns self-deprecating while also never one to say, “It’s just YA,” in his quest to write truthful novels for teenagers, is so in-touch that one can imagine him turning down a crown in favor of maintaining his status as an everyman. (An everyman who says things far more witty, clever, and insightful than the average dude, natch.)

Here, ten ways Green just gets it:

1. He Gets That Teens Contain Multitudes
In Green’s books, his teenage protagonists are very smart but also very real. They’re people who feel like your friends, imperfections and all. Colin Singleton, in An Abundance of Katherines, is a veritable genius but he can’t solve love. Hazel, in The Fault in Our Stars, is obsessed with a highbrow Infinite Jest-type book but also lives for the next episode of “America’s Next Top Model.” In Looking for Alaska, of course Miles Halter falls for Alaska Young: She’s a little wild, a little dangerous, but also a most-excellent confidante to her boarding school friends. Green’s teens are real and relatable and pop-culture obsessed, not one-dimensional, slang-spewing adolescent caricatures.

2. He Knows That Teens ARE “Wise Beyond Their Years”
While he’s caught some flack from adults that his characters seem wise beyond their years, Green says he never catches that criticism from teens. He works to make his characters sound to teenagers the way teenagers sound to themselves. Which is why a line like, “The world is not a wish-granting factory” (from The Fault in Our Stars), is, yes, wise, but also relatable — what one of us as a teen didn’t start to realize that nugget of truth ourselves? The reason teens read Green is because — by sounding like their deepest thoughts — he shows them he’s listening to them, too.

3. He Tackles the Tough Stuff
“Oh, to be young again,” an adult might say when picking up a John Green book, thinking that it’s happy-youth fluff. But they’d be wrong. While Green’s teens aren’t pieces in a Movie-of-the-Week playset (far from it!), they all have real issues. Some are just a little neurotic, a little anxious, a little too smart for their own good. But real things like depression, suicide, divorce, and running away impact his characters, too. And there is, of course, TFiOS’ lead character having cancer. But, the WAY Green tackled it is so different in its approach. He didn’t want to write a sentimental cancer novel, and his character, Hazel, even says to the reader, as she peruses obits of other teen cancer victims, that she feared people looking at her life and defining her by her disease. Green writes Hazel — and all his teens — as full human beings, who are more than their problems.

4. When People Ask, He Answers
Green maintains a pretty active Twitter presence. (At this writing, he had 4.3 million followers and had logged more than 25,000 tweets.) He also posts regularly (and with mastery) to his Tumblr page, fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com. Through his social media platforms, Green actually engages with fans, rather than subscribing to the off-limits author stereotype. Today, of course, plenty of writers have an online presence but Green will converse with fans through social media and really seems to like using it. The genuineness of his internet identity is what sets him apart. How can teens not love an author who knows how to speak their language?

5. He Gives Credit Where It’s Due
Earlier this year, Green admitted that a quote attributed to him on a poster — “I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met” — that was said to be from his novel Paper Towns was actually from a fan. (He writes so much he forgets much of what’s in his books, so when he saw the quote attributed to him, he first thought it was his own.) But, when the quote was cited as belonging to Melody Truong, Green agreed to split royalties with her.

6. He Writes Up to Teenagers
Green told a 15-year-old guest writer for the U.K.’s The Guardian, “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers they’re not smart.” He’s said that he expected readers to understand references to hamartia and Zeno’s paradox in The Fault in Our Stars or, at the very least, be the type of learning-lovers to look them up.

7. He’s Close with His Brother (and They Both Know a Smart Guy Is One Worth Watching)
In 2007, Green and his brother Hank began trading public video messages to stay in touch. They never stopped and now operate their own YouTube channel, vlogbrothers. With no set format, the duo tackle topics both tough and silly, and explain big issues. (They’ve broken down everything from Boko Haram to Syria to health care reform.) The channel has more than 2.5 million subscribers, so the duo is helping foster many future smarties.

8. He’s a Do-Gooder But He Doesn’t Make a Huge Deal About It
Another project of the Brothers Green is the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, a Montana-based nonprofit that has sponsored the Project for Awesome each year since 2007. The campaign asks users to submit videos advocating for their favorite charities, and in 2014, raised more than $1.2 million for dozens of charities. And, though, it’s clearly a big deal, Green and his brother really shine the spotlight on the event’s participants, rather than themselves.

9. He Reads YA Novels, Too
Though he is an adult and says he reads primarily adult fiction, in an interview with The Guardian, Green said his favorite book is the The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson. He also regularly makes book recommendations (a list is here), and many of them, like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart and Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, are slightly and delightfully off-center young adult musts.

10. Taylor Swift Thinks He’s Fab and Vice Versa
If you remain unconvinced that Green “gets” it, will a celebrity endorsement help? While working on the Paper Towns movie, he posted to his Tumblr that he was listening to Taylor Swift’s Album “1989”. Swift, alerted to this fact, effused to her fans on Tumblr: “My favorite author just said WHAT?!?” The mutual admiration society between two idolized but not ego-inflated artists? Yeah, he gets it.