Why John Green Likes Writing for Teenagers
The Y.A. author, whose novel “Looking for Alaska” has just been adapted for a Hulu series, says “young people are thinking about so many important questions, about love and meaning and justice.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I read this column every week and whenever people answer this question, I assume that they are lying. But I am telling the truth, I promise! “The Wicked Pavilion,” by Dawn Powell. “An Introduction to Global Health Delivery,” by Dr. Joia Mukherjee. “Here Is New York,” by E. B. White. “The Gods of Gotham,” by Lyndsay Faye. “Rules for Vanishing,” by Kate Alice Marshall. “The Lights of Pointe-Noire,” by Alain Mabanckou.
What’s the last great book you read?
Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys.”
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love the decadence of reading on a weekday afternoon, when I know that I’m supposed to be at the office or doing something the world will see as work. That’s also when the house is at its quietest, and I love quiet when reading.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I’m not sure no one else has heard of it, but I wish I knew more people who’d read Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel “This Blinding Absence of Light,” which follows a group of political prisoners living in total darkness.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.”
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“The Fountainhead,” of course, but you also shouldn’t read it after the age of 40.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I try to read everything published by: Colson Whitehead, Daniel Alarcón, Emily Nussbaum, Laura Miller, Jacqueline Woodson, Kaveh Akbar, Angie Thomas, Markus Zusak, Jason Reynolds, E. Lockhart, Rainbow Rowell, Gene Luen Yang, Ashley C. Ford and Michael Chabon. Among others, I’m sure.
How do you distinguish Y.A. books from adult fiction?
I don’t know. It’s not something I think about much. I like to write for and about teenagers, because young people are thinking about so many important questions, about love and meaning and justice. And maybe in part because they are new to those questions, teenagers tend to approach them without much embarrassment or ironic distance. My favorite Y.A. novels explore love and loss and meaning with that same unironic enthusiasm.
Which young adult books would you recommend to people who don’t usually read Y.A.?
I never thought about writing for teenagers until I was 22 and read “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, and “Monster,” by Walter Dean Myers. Both those novels are capital-g Great. I also often recommend to adults “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,” by M. T. Anderson, and “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” by E. Lockhart.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Before my wife and I started dating, we had a two-person book club. We read Toni Morrison and Philip Roth and fell in love little by little. There’s a line in “The Human Stain” that we both underlined when we read it: “The pleasure isn’t owning the person. The pleasure is this. Having another contender in the room with you.” Over 15 years later, that’s still the pleasure.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
At least according to Herodotus, the Persian emperor Xerxes I was marching his army through a forest when he came across a sycamore tree so beautiful “that he was moved to decorate it with golden ornaments and to leave behind one of his soldiers to guard it.” This will not surprise anyone who has ever seen a great sycamore tree, of course, but still. (I learned this from Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”)
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
The weather. It’s underrated.
How do you organize your books?
I own a book called “The New York Public Library Guide to Organizing a Home Library” and I do exactly what it tells me to do.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a large collection of books about conjoined twins. I used to be the conjoined twins reviewer for Booklist Magazine, which is a busier reviewing beat than one might expect. My favorite novels about conjoined twins (or formerly conjoined twins) are “Sister Mine,” by Nalo Hopkinson, and “God’s Fool,” by Mark Slouka.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
After I had meningitis, my friend Mike Rugnetta gave me Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary book “The Body in Pain,” which I found extremely helpful. Scarry articulated for me part of what I found (and find) so awful about physical pain: Pain resists and evades and at times even destroys language. As Virginia Woolf put it, “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I loved Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and Wilson Rawls’s “Where the Red Fern Grows.” As a kid, I loved books that made me cry.
Beginning in fourth or fifth grade, I fell hard for Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books, and Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” and I really loved Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I still like “The Baby-Sitters Club,” if that’s what you’re asking.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
It’s going to be so stressful if I invite people I really admire, you know? They’ll all be so impressive and sophisticated and quick-witted. Meeting people I look up to is almost always a disappointment to me — not because they’re disappointing, but because I am. I’m already very anxious about this dinner and it’s only a hypothetical situation. I’m just going to stay home, I think.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Ideally, no one. I would like insofar as possible for my life to remain mine.
What do you plan to read next?
I need to read Pamela Bannos’s biography of the photographer Vivian Maier for the two-person book club.
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