Let’s talk John Green: A Look at Writing, Perspective, and Representation

So why do you read? In the world of novel readers, many people will tell you they read to expand their view of the world, to escape, or to connect. While I read for all reasons, there is something really special about reading and seeing myself represented, and I’m sure others will agree. There is something almost reassuring about knowing that the things you are experiencing, thinking, and doing are not singular. I read mostly Young Adult, which as a category is really taking on the progression of representation head first. Still, if I went to the section in a bookstore as a Biracial woman, I would be hard pressed to go up to a bookshelf and pull out a book with a Biracial main character. While White characters and authors have been the default for many years, there is certainly a shift in demand and outcome as of late. Readers are asking for more characters of color, lgbtq+ characters, and mental health representation. But where should these characters come from? This really leads us to a question: do we need more diverse authors or do we need the authors that are already dominant to make more of an effort at creating characters they can’t necessarily relate to?

I think there is absolutely a way for a White author to write a Black character, in the same way any author can write characters that are different from them, and they should. But what do we gain and lose from that? If I had the choice to read a first person narrative from a Hispanic character written by a Hispanic author or one from a Non Hispanic author, I would choose Hispanic every time. I’m certainly not the only one that feels this way, and the idea has translated into something called the Ownvoices movement. This started off as a hashtag but soon translated into a deeper look at diverse authors, perspective, and accuracy of representation.

So, what does this have to do with John Green? Arguably THE name in young adult literature, John Green’s newest novel Turtles All The Way Down follows and is almost wholly about the main character Aza’s OCD and anxiety.  In an interview, Green said,  “I couldn’t write about anything else….I have OCD and it is a really important part of my life, and at times it is a disabling part of my life. But I also have a really wonderful, fulfilling life.” I had never before read a book with the main character having OCD, but now I feel like I have some idea what that must be like. Not to say that this one book represents every person with this disorder—no book does—but a mass amount of people have come out and said they felt represented: that this was an accurate depiction of what they experience, and importantly, that they gained something from reading it. So clearly, the accuracy of representation comes from the fact that John Green is writing from his own experience. The fact that it remains to be a New York Times Bestseller since its release eight weeks ago shows that people are interested in this type of novel. We could say that whatever book John Green put out after his massively successful The Fault In Our Stars would have been a bestseller, but the fact that his newest novel is representing a group that otherwise may not have been recognized on that level is a great use of his notoriety.

If there is any evidence that readers are ready and eager to read Ownvoices novels from marginalized groups it is Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give. The Hate U Give debuted at number one on The New York Times Bestseller and is on its fortieth week on the list. The novel follows Starr, a Black teen, as she navigates between her poverty-stricken neighborhood and upper-class private school as her life is upended when she becomes the sole witness to a police officer shooting her best friend. For me, the police brutality is something it seems people wanted to ignore or avoid. Thomas’ novel shows otherwise: people are interested in gaining a new understanding, a new perspective. A Black women came into the literary scene with a novel that really delves into race relations in America, and not only did she become famous for it, she found an entire audience that we never knew was there. This is evidence that will show publishers, editors, authors, and readers everywhere that not only is there an audience for books representing minority groups, there is a need for it.

I predict that we will see a ton of diverse authors coming from big publishing houses with novels covering a lot more representation, with accuracy, than ever before. I also think this new push will encourage famous authors to start including more diverse characters. A huge name in Young Adult fiction right now is  Sarah J. Mass; after the release of seven novels with almost completely White, straight characters, in her newest release this year includes a bisexual character into her existing series. Many people believe it’s because of the backlash she was getting from her diversity lacking novels. At least she’s trying. We will see authors progressing in the same way. Years have gone by without much thought to representation and its effects, but its expansion and discussion will certainly expand the amount of readers, greater understanding and connection, and provide appreciation for cultures, heritages, and lifestyles.

– Sarah Bodnar

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