Friday, September 21, 2012

A Little Romance

As we head into the book award handicapping season, I’ve been reading and reflecting on teen romance. This week’s readThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green—is a strong contender for the Printz Award for young adult writing.

Green has already been honored by the American Library Association with Printzes for An Abundance of Katherines (honor-winner) and Looking for Alaska (award-winner).

This time around he’s written a smart, funny romance set in the world of…brace yourselves…mostly terminal teenaged cancer patients. Not exactly a typical or cheerful setting for a romance, but it serves to do a number of great things for the story:

-it intensifies the feelings of the main characters. Living as they do in a world of “battles won amid wars sure to be lost,” they know deep in their bones that life is short.

-it speeds up the action, so that, in the words of Hazel, the narrator, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

-it allows a sense of bittersweet tragedy to hang over the story, making it easy to compare Fault to a classic like Romeo and Juliet. (The title is a quotation from a non-romantic Shakespearean tragedy, Julius Caesar.)

-it makes the feeling of hyper-reality that you’ll find in all good romances seem totally artistically justified. Of course the boy and the girl in question are unbelievably smart, witty, and well-read, as well as physically attractive. They’ve been facing death for years. As readers we can’t begrudge the author for making these characters better than the rest of us.

While I loved The Fault in Our Stars, when recommending it to readers (in grades 8 or 9 and up), I’d want to have in my other hand a different sort of romance: The Big Crunch. This title by American Book Award winner Pete Hautman didn’t get a Printz award when it came out last year, but it’s still great.

What’s special about Big Crunch is its non-specialness. The characters are not unbelievably smart, witty, and well-read, as well as physically attractive. They feel real in a way that characters on a page rarely do: they’re entirely believable reasonably smart and attractive teens who happen to fall in love the way real people do.

So, ready for a little romance? You can’t go wrong with either The Fault in Our Stars or The Big Crunch.

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