Friday, June 6, 2014

Parenting and The Fault in Our Stars

Photo Image from

Last night, I sat in a theater with dozens of other people who, based on their gasps and sobs and squeals of anticipation at the start of key scenes in the film, had all read John Green's captivating book, The Fault in Our Stars. It was a beautiful thing to be part of a group catharsis like that - I didn't stand out as I sobbed quietly into my tissue. Everyone around me was doing the same thing.

I loved the book and I loved the movie. I've been pretty pleased with film adaptations of beloved books over the past few years. I think the fact that, so often these days, authors - like John Green - are heavily involved in the production, has a lot to do with it.

As a 40-year-old parent and reader of YA literature, what stands out to me in this story is the fact that John Green doesn't undercut, stereotype, or condescend teens. Anyone who knows me know that I love teens - I loved being one myself, I love hanging out with them, I love reading about them, I love talking with them, I love learning from them, I love parenting them, I love going to movies with them. I think teens are far smarter, kinder, and more capable than the world assumes. When it comes to how teens are viewed, I get so. damn. tired. of everyone's incessant eye rolls, sighs, and low expectations.

The media patronizes us with portrayals of shallow, aimless, angst-ridden adolescent clich├ęs that just don't accurately reflect the reality of so many young adults who are much, much more than an oversimplified and unoriginal representation of an entire population of people who live on our planet! Frankly, it's insulting and offensive. 

So many teens are capable of more than many dare believe. So many teens have to constantly fight against the world's assumptions and low expectations of them. So many teens are impressively intelligent. So many teens are responsible, kind, wise, compassionate, deep, well-read, thoughtful, funny, smart, quick, hard-working, driven, centered. Enter John Green.*

The Fault in our Stars gives us Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster - two impressive, smart, witty, mature, independent, and loveable teens who just happen to have cancer when they fall in love. Most of the time that you're reading the book or watching the movie, you forget that it's a story about adolescent love. You think you're watching a grown-up story, but oh oh, wait. It's not a story about grown-ups. It's a story about teens. It's just that not everyone is used to seeing teens that aren't portrayed as petty, catty, obnoxious brats dripping in saccharine ("OMG, HE'S SO CUTE!") that you see in so many boring, weak, cookie cutter films.

I loved the book and had a crush on Augustus Waters myself by chapter 3. And while I loved all the side characters in the story (heart-broken Isaac, perpetually-intoxicated Peter, ball-less Patrick) and the locations (Augustus's basement, Amsterdam, the literal heart of Jesus), my personal, more intimate connection, particularly in the film, came from the relationship between Hazel Grace and her parents.

The Lancasters loved Hazel deeply as her parents and treated her with respect and as an equal. Their aim was not to control her or ensure some kind of hierarchical position of authority over her. Their goal was to help her have a full life of purpose by allowing her to be her own person and being present with her while also being respectful of her need for space to spread her own wings.

I was watching three separate, independent characters - Hazel, her mother, her father - tied inextricably by profound love and the painful reality of their situation, but not so enmeshed as to cloud or get in the way of Hazel's personal reality and truth. They gave her guidance and gentle encouragement, but let her determine her own path. They spoke as equals. They respected her wishes. They gave her space. They gave her wings. They treated one another with respect and honesty.

And while I've always appreciated John Green's portrayal of teens as more than the trite adolescent-caricatured drivel that many books and movies slop in front of us, it was during the movie that I came to value his depiction of the relationship that parents and kids can share.

Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play Frannie and Michael Lancaster, Hazel's parents, and as I sat enjoying the movie (immensely, I might add - great indie-film vibe; no over-the-top Hollywood hoopla in this film!), it dawned on me that not only was John Green busting teenage stereotypes, he was also challenging the notion that parents of teenagers are always exasperated, aggravated, and demanding.

There are parents in this world who are not always rolling their eyes and yelling at their teens but who genuinely enjoy their kids and have healthy, mature, considerate relationships with them. Parents who enjoy their kids for who they are and who aren't perennially frustrated with their kids' burgeoning self-identity even if it differs from the often-controlling vision that the parents themselves might have for them. Parents who aren't either hovering or absent, but present and steady.

I loved the way that Hazel's parents were portrayed - not as stupid or cloying or clueless like the Disney Channel or the Cartoon Network would lead viewers to believe all parents are - but as intelligent, thoughtful, appropriately concerned, loving, respectful individuals working together as a team, as a family, and as - yes, I'm saying it - friends. And whether Hazel needed a listening ear, friendship, space, encouragement, to be called on her crap, advice, a drive alone, a sounding board, to go be with her friends, a chance to scream and vocalize her frustrations, arms around her, or a gut-wrenchingly, aching cry that will cut you to your core . . . her parents were there. No eye rolls, no put downs, no aggravation. Just a steady, sure, loving and respectful presence.

Thank you, John Green, for letting the world know how awesome teens can be and for recognizing how awesome their parents can be, too.

*(and Rainbow Rowell and many other YA authors today).

Side Note: Unrelated to this particular post, I just want to mention that Shailene Woodley gave an Oscar-worthy performance that utterly reduced me to a blubbering mess. Anyone who watched the movie and didn't sob is made of stone. 


Zelia said...

I saw the movie today and I cried to the point of getting ill. It hit home and made me very sad. I wish I had a friend like Augustus to talk to. It is difficult to find friends that try never to hurt you. Augustus was that.
It is very difficult to go through painful times totally alone.
Great movie.

LMW said...

I just don't know if my sould can handle watching this movie. It sounds like there are so many things to love about it, but I've always ahd a very difficult time watching illness turn to death in movies. It's been a challenge for me ever since I was a kid. Assuming that's what happens in this movie, I feel like I'll never be able to bring myself to watch it, especially if characters that I grow to love die...

I do agree with you on how annoying it is to hear people go on about how terrible teenagers are! I'm tired of hearing people talk about how teens aren't as good as the older generations, or even my generation. I hear it a lot at church and it always ticks me off. I work with teens a lot for my job and I get to encounter teens with all sorts of backgrounds who push through a lot of difficult things. They deserve respect for what they're trying to become and the barriers that they have to bust through in order to survive in this world.

The Magic Violinist said...

YES. I loved that, too! :) A lot of books/TV shows either show teenagers in a lazy, stupid, angst-ridden light, or show parents to be annoying, clueless, hovering, and embarrassing. I love that John Green didn't do that in TFIOS, and I write my books the same way.

Emily Foley said...

I just finished the book last Friday for my book club and I haven't seen the movie yet. When we discussed the book at our club the general consensus was: teenagers don't talk like that. And I think we were probably right. Now granted, I haven't been around the same teenagers you've been around, but I literally used a dictionary more than once and I have never met a person who speaks using language like that--adult or adolescent. But I have never been a teenager with a death sentence and I imagine that changes you a bit.

I loved the book. I figured from the beginning what the ending would be but that didn't ruin or change anything. I really enjoyed the story and the characters. I also noticed the difference in Hazel's relationship with her parents--much more like my relationship was with mine when I was a teenager. I loved that her dad cried all the time, it's so REAL. Being in the literal heart of Jesus made me laugh every single time. And I didn't cry as much as I thought I would until the fake funeral. Oh my gosh did that tear at my heart. And when his sisters were telling him how smart he is and Hazel says "He's not that smart" and Gus's dad hugs her and whispers to her? Oh my gosh I was a goner.

I loved the names. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters? I mean seriously, those are good names.

Never in my life have I cared about drinking alcohol but boy do I want to try some champagne at Oranjee with literal flower petals raining down all around me. I mean, drinking the stars with Augustus Waters? What could be better?!

I was worried the book would end in a

like her favorite book did and I was going to be so mad about it. I'm glad it didn't. :)

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie! Fly out here and see it with me! Heh.

Dr. Mark said...

I can't believe it's taken me so long to comment on this post, but better late than never. I loved the book. I loved the movie. And I loved this post. There is so much in this movie that affected me, but you put your finger on a couple of points that I don't think I recognized right off the bat.

I'm privileged enough to interact with a variety of teens, including some as well-spoken and mature as Gus and Hazel. Terminal diagnosis or not, there are some amazing teens out there. I think his willingness to present this side of teens is one of the reasons John Green is so popular right now.

And, yes! Yes! Parents of teens don't always have to be so antagonistic and exasperated. Everyone comes with his or her own personality, but aren't there cases when unruly teens are as much a product of low expectations as anything else? I think so. Sometimes all a kid needs is for an adult to see potential and expect greatness in him or her. Thank you, John Green for recognizing this and showing parents as something other than an impediment to teen "happiness."

And thank you, Stacy for a great post. It gave me a lot to think about.

seventytwofishes said...

I have to admit, I have not read the book yet nor have I seen the movie. However...I think that like adults, there are many types of teens in the world. Some adults are well-spoken, some are not (think George W!), just as some teens are mature for their age and experienced, and some are not.

I do think that anyone who experiences a serious illness gains a level of maturity and insight that goes beyond chronological age. Such a situation causes one to reflect and know one's self in a way that cannot be measured by chronological age.

There is a great piece by Miah Arnold called "You Owe Me," published in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2011 that demonstrates this. Arnold works at MD Anderson Cancer Center, teaching poetry and writing to young children suffering from debilitating and, more often than not, terminal cancer. Their insight and maturity is powerful.

Further, at your urging, Stacy, I just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird. What a beautiful book. In researching Harper Lee, I learned that although the novel has been wildly popular and is taught in so many high schools and universities, there has been surprisingly little scholarship published on the novel. Some claim this is because Harper Lee wrote Scout in an unrealistic way--they claim a child her age would not speak in the way she does or have the insight she does. I disagree. If one looks carefully at the book, it is clear that the words she actually speaks are appropriate to her age, upbringing and place of residence. Further, she is reflecting back as she tells the story. Who knows how old she actually is when she tells the story. Regardless, the story is still amazing!

Keep on writing and reading!

Boquinha said...

Mom - I can't believe you went to see the movie (did you read the book first?).

LMW, yeah, it may not be for you then. How are you with books that address that? Bridge to Terabithia is another one with which to be careful.

" They deserve respect for what they're trying to become and the barriers that they have to bust through in order to survive in this world. " THIS! Yes!

TMV, I love that you write your books the same way. Maybe it's because you have such awesome (and humble) parents who treat you with mutual respect. :P

Emily, that actually makes me sad! An entire group of people in the same room who all haven't ever met teenagers who talk like the teens in the book?? Honestly, most of the teenagers I know fit the bill - they are witty, smart, well-read, sarcastic, funny, etc. And they can hold their own with adults and, I'd even venture to say, are often more well-informed than some adults. I just think it's about time that they get portrayed that way in books and movies.

And am I the only one who did not at all see the ending coming?? I don't want to spoil it, so I'll try to be cryptic here - I thought the reader would be dealing with someone else's demise, not that person's. That caught me off guard!

LOVE the fake funeral. It's my favorite part of the book. I love the names, too!

Have you seen the movie yet?

Mark, points like what?

72fishes, good point about teens and adults!

Yay! I'm so glad you liked TKAM! Such a beautiful book indeed! I agree with you about Scout. Plus, she was raised by a well-read, intelligent, class-act dad. That had to aid her maturity while also respecting the person she was. (Wait. You said upbringing, so we're on the same page about that - go figure!).

Thank you!

Dr. Mark said...

Well, the point about Hazel's parents and how they respect her is one I didn't see in the book or in the movie until you pointed it out.

I guess the other is how mature and unlike stereotypical teens Gus and Hazel are. I mean, I think when I was reading the book I got caught up in the fact that they have cancer and attributed a lot of maturity to that experience, but watching the movie and reading your post made me think a little deeper about it. Diagnosis or no, they are intelligent, well-spoken humans who just happen to be teens.