Holy cow, it’s been ten years since John Green burst onto the YA scene and started his rise to rock-stardom. I remember meeting John not long after Looking for Alaska came out. It was at a library conference and his publisher was introducing him to everyone, including colleagues at other publishing houses, which I was at the time. Since then, he has been introduced to a lot more people, so he would never say he remembers meeting me, but I definitely remember meeting him. He sorta had this deer-in-headlights look – wide open eyes behind his glasses, nervous energy, big hand gestures. It was before Looking for Alaska won the Printz and he was just a debut author his publisher believed in. It was before he was famous. Can you imagine? My impression upon meeting him was a guy who was friendly, gracious, astounded that people were reading his book, funny, and he talked fast. Dressed kinda nerdy, too. Ha. Even those of us who worked with authors on a daily basis were not immune to wanting to meet John. We had all heard about him and his book. I also liked him because his last name is mine, but he spells his wrong (mine has an ‘e’ on the end). The picture above is me with my signed first edition of Looking for Alaska and the signed 10th Anniversary Edition. Look how little his name is the first edition cover. You’ve come a long way, John Green.
I did read Looking for Alaska ten years ago when it first came out. It was John’s only book at the time, and I loved it. To be honest, other than general impressions that have stayed with me, I didn’t really remember the specifics, so I decided to reread it. It’s still the thought-provoking, engaging, and impressive debut that I remember. The 10th Anniversary edition of Looking for Alaska also contains an introduction by John, and lots of extra stuff at the end including a lengthy Q&A, letters (letters! remember those?) between John and his editor, and deleted scenes.
Looking for Alaska is divided into two sections – before and after. YA literature can also be thought of in two parts – before John Green and after John Green. He’s not the first author to cause a paradigm shift in YA lit. Judy Blume, S. E. Hinton, and Suzanne Collins are three notable authors who changed YA.* Hinton is often credited as the mother of YA and is best known for her book The Outsiders. Blume has a long history of controversy because she was one of the first to write the uncensored truth about being a teenage girl (see: Forever). Things got real with Judy. Collins’s massive success with The Hunger Games spawned many copy cats and an entirely new genre of YA fantasy, the dystopian novel. Yes, there were dystopian novels before The Hunger Games, but none had the impact in teen pop culture like her books did.
John has changed YA in similar ways. He has given great characters, fantastic stories, heartbreaking romance, and joy to readers across genders, ages, and backgrounds. John’s characters are complex, flawed, at times tragic, funny, smart, and have strong unique voices. They are also perfectly teenager-y, meaning they have deep thoughts about the big picture – how they fit in to the world, what this life thing means – and they fall in love hard all while dealing with high school, parents, and friends. Reading John’s books as an adult certainly doesn’t make me miss my teenage years, but reading his books transports me back there. His characters are real and true and I think that’s one of the reasons his books are so unbelievably popular. His books are real. Some would say too real since his books joined Blume, Collins, and Hinton’s books on the most frequently challenged and banned books lists. I’m not sure what makes adults so sketched out about teenagers reading about things that are actually happening in their lives, but obviously these controversies have never dampened John’s popularity. His writing resonates with teenagers.
John also did one thing differently than his contemporaries that almost certainly contributed to his popularity – he embraced social media and got to know his fans. Ten years ago, was there a Facebook? A YouTube? I don’t really remember, maybe it was MySpace, but John was one of the first to use social media in a meaningful way to talk directly with his audience. He speaks to teens without censor, condescension, or as if they are less than. He treats them as equals – intelligent people who can deal with the big things, but delight in the small and sometimes ridiculous, too.
His success with social media contributed to changing the way books are promoted and he set an example for other authors who could now promote their books themselves, rather than relying on the publisher. He and his brother, Hank, have legions of followers for their YouTube channel, vlogbrothers, and they are the patron saints of Nerdfighters everywhere. DFTBA! The Internet almost doesn’t seem big enough for John. I wish John & Nerdfighters would break the Internet rather than Kim whatshername. His work has made an impression beyond teen pop culture. The Fault in Our Stars was an answer in the form of a question on Jeopardy!, and the ladies at Litchfield have even passed it around.
John’s name and books are so well-known that it is shocking to realize you can count the number of books he’s written on one hand. Unless you only have four digits, it works. Try it – Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars. You can even count the wonderful, witty, and sharp book he co-wrote with David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and not need a second hand. I guess considering he’s only been publishing for ten years, that’s not bad. It’s not like all he does is write. He does other awesome things like making friends with an amazing girl named Esther and dedicating The Fault in Our Stars to her, visiting Africa with Bill Gates, “decreasing world suck” with Project for Awesome, and so much more.
YA fiction will never be the same now that John is here. He is the butterfly that flapped its wings and created a hurricane. Other authors who write realistic teen fiction are definitely benefiting not only because readers want more good stories about real kids, but so are publishers. More agents and publishers are looking for that new author who they can say is going to be the “next John Green” and introduce them all wide-eyed, and nervous swagger to the world.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t said anything about John and the effect he’s had on YA that hasn’t already been written. But I thought he deserved some sort of recognition and a tip ‘o the hat from BookPeople because he is a favorite author of ours and our readers. He is also a strong supporter of independent bookstores, and for that we just want to say thanks. We love you too, John, and here’s 10 more years of awesome.
If you like John Green and are desperately waiting for his next book to come out, you may also want to look into these authors or these specific books. If we’ve left off one of your favorites, add it in the comments!
Laurie Halse Anderson
Judy Blume (her teen books)
David Levithan (has a new book coming out based on one of the characters from Will Grayson, Will Grayson)
Melina Marchetta (her realistic fiction, not fantasy, but the fantasy stuff is excellent, too)
John Corey Whaley
Rats Saw God
Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Chocolate War
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy
Fat Kid Rules the World
Why We Broke Up
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
All the Bright Places
The Beginning of Everything
The Catcher in the Rye
It’s Kind of a Funny Story
The Spectacular Now
I Am the Messenger
Burger Wuss (out of print; check your library for this one)
*I didn’t include J.K. Rowling in the list of authors who have caused paradigm shifts. Yes, she caused a huge, massive change in children’s publishing for sure – probably the biggest one ever – but she didn’t write the boy wizard books for teens specifically. They started out as books for children. As Harry aged, so did the audience for the books, but this is not a series generally thought of as YA. We could argue what the definition of YA is, but that’s a topic that deserves its own discussion and article.