John and Hank Green and Falling in Love With the World
Last night a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall proved what book publishing and his fans have long known about John Green: There's something deeply powerful about not only the popular Y.A. books he writes, but also about the man himself.
Last night a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall proved what book publishing and his fans have long known about John Green: There's something deeply powerful about not only the books he writes, four of which are currently on the New York Times Y.A. best-seller list, loved by readers both young and old, but also about the man himself. He and his brother Hank, with whom he put on Tuesday's "Evening of Awesome" with the help of some awesome guests (The Mountain Goats, Kimya Dawson, Neil Gaiman, and others), are charismatic, real, charmingly nerdy, and unquestionably talented. Most important of all, they talk to kids not like they're kids and adults not like they're adults, but as if we are all people with not unobtainable dreams in this world. They acknowledge that the world might deal us ugly hands sometimes, but can make up for it in magical, unexpected ways. And they are funny — an insightful, inclusive, not mean kind of funny. It works. I have never heard people scream with joy so loudly at a concert of any form, including during a mortifying heavy metal fan phase in my youth. At one point toward the end of the show, Hank announced he'd be playing a song about a fish. The audience shrieked in inestimable joy. "That's a weird thing to scream about, you guys," he said, and played the song about a fish, to laughter and cheers.
The evening at Carnegie Hall (Hank gave several stomps of a foot to the stage anytime anyone said the words; the audience stomped back) was a celebration of the one-year anniversary of John's most recent book, The Fault in Our Stars. If you haven't, you really should read it. It's about two kids who meet and fall in love at a cancer support group, and in it he manages the unexpected: It's life-affirming instead of maudlin; beautiful and moving instead of simply depressing. I've gone on about that book previously, and its excellence has been noted by plenty of others, so you don't even have to take my word for it.
But what struck me most at last night's event (you can find a link to its livestream here) was that even though this was an event ostensibly for the book, it was also about something so much greater, and something that certainly wasn't going to end in the interim as fans waited for the next John Green novel. In this update on a kind of old-fashioned variety show, with readings, songs, musical guests, dancing, speeches, and a question and answer portion of the night — complete with costume changes — there were common threads. Many of the songs (performed by The Mountain Goats and Kimya Dawson as well as Hank Green) were about love and how important it is to each of us, whether it's love for another human or love for something creative and compelling. Sometimes the messages were also about high school, and the kind of loneliness we can feel even when we've left that place; about the regrets we have, maybe, about how we should have done things better while we were there, and how we'll do things better in the future. You could boil some of this down to an anti-bullying/it gets better sort of message, but there's more. There was talk of writing, in connection with loneliness and also with collaboration. "This is what I love about novels," said John. "They jump into the abyss to be with you where you are ... reading a good book helps us feel un-alone." He added that the life of Esther Earl, a friend and inspiration for The Fault in Our Stars, had taught him a "hero's journey is not from weakness to strength. The real hero's journey is from strength to weakness."
That journey does not need to be an oppressively sad one, though, even if we acknowledge that parts of life are inescapably sad. The Green brothers, both energetic 30-somethings, are all about community, and collaboration, and not being alone — metaphorically, but also probably literally. Not feeling alone, at least. So they've surrounded themselves with others, each other and beyond. Their video-blog project, Brotherhood 2.0, begun in the mid-2000s, involved the creation of Vlogbrothers and led to memes, catchphrases, fans known as Nerdfighters, and the world of "Nerdfighteria" that's still going strong. It's a full-blown movement, with meetings and project collaborations and friendships and forums, in person and online. And there's the related Project of Awesome from the brothers — "an annual event that sprung out of various YouTube communities to support charities and other ways of decreasing the overall worldwide level of suck" — which has raised hundred of thousands of dollars to help make the world a better place, a place where it's O.K., even awesome, to be a nerd.
In the question and answer portion of the night, Green was asked for his advice for aspiring novelists. He said, "Read a lot, read broadly, and tell stories to your friends. Pay attention when they get bored. Write a lot." Gaiman added, "Read everything. Write. Finish things and get on with the next one ... You'll learn more from a glorious failure than from something you've never finished." Hank was asked, "When do you feel like you're a real adult?" and responded, shrugging his shoulders, "Hopefully you never will." Later, resolving an age-old Internet battle, it was determined by Hank in the Q&A lightning round that "gif" is pronounced "jiff," and not with a hard g.
But the quote perhaps best summing up the night is what John said about the community that's sprung up around the brothers and their projects: "It has helped me fall in love with the world." In their interactions with Nerdfighters and fans, the Green brothers are empowering them to do the same, but there's nothing mushy or cloying about it — they're just being themselves. Back in October, Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of the iconic Y.A. novel Speak, told me of John Green, "I just love him and have such respect for how he’s made the world safe for a lot of kids to be who they are. It took me to age 35 to be who I was; if I were 15 now, John would save me years of angst. He is a holy man."
It shouldn't be hard for adults to understand kids, for publishers to market to them. After all, we've all been there. And yet so much of what one sees targeted to young readers (and some of the things grownups say and think about kids) seems to underestimate their intelligence or just, somehow, be a bit off. Contrary to that is the incredible, palpable affection I witnessed from fans of John and Hank, an affection that expands to include anyone or anything John and Hank like, love, or respect. If there is something to be learned in terms of book publishing from this event, it's don't talk down to your audience. Be honest and authentic. Be talented (of course). But also have fun. Why wouldn't kids, as well as adults, respond to that? They do, as the Internet has proved, with 200 Tumblr meetups worldwide last night for the event, plus hundreds of posts tagged "Evening of Awesome," "The Fault in Our Stars," and "Carnegie Hall." Carnegie Hall was also a trending term worldwide. If the brothers have fallen in love with the world, clearly the world loves them back, with a standing ovation. If this is the future of Y.A. communities and readership, it's a great thing. That it's actually the present makes it even better.
Top 3 inset photos by Andrea Fischman.