This would be the perfect book for an updated Shelf Discovery in a few years, in the "Read 'em and Weep" chapter.
Seriously, I have got to stop reading books that make me cry. It used to be no book ever caused tears to well up. Is it because I'm getting older? Or is it these books about kids who die are more than I can handle as a parent? I don't know, but this book required kleenex at hand, even when it made me laugh at times.
But I do have to give props to author John Green for taking a difficult subject (kids with cancer) and not giving into schmaltz and sentimentality. There were points when I thought, oh no, he's not going to go down that cliched path, is he? And he didn't. It's clear that not all kids with cancer are perfect angels, nor are all the people who mourn them online completely genuine. Hazel sees all of this, just as she says how her parents are affected by her diagnosis, emotionally and financially.
This is not just a story of kids with cancer, it's about how families cope with a terminal diagnosis, and about how kids react to it and to each other. It's also about the very human need to matter and to be remembered--a big topic for a YA book, but Green handles it admirably.
The narrator, Hazel, has stage IV cancer ("Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs"), but an experimental treatment has bought her some time--not a lifetime, but a little extra. She's got a darkly humorous personality, and having finished her high school via GED, she takes classes at a community college and has become very well read.
Still, she's weak, needs to use an oxygen tank, and has pretty much given up the idea of a social life until her mother forces her to attend a cancer support group at church. It's an excruciating exercise in seeing the positive, and Hazel begs to quit, until Augustus Waters joins the group.
It's a cliche to say that Augustus changes Hazel's life, but it's true, in unexpected ways. How he changes her life, I won't tell you--no spoilers. Let's just say that although this is a YA book, it's over 300 pages, and I read it in one day. Tears and all.
Hazel is at times a brave trooper, but other times she's overwhelmed. While visiting the Anne Frank Museum, she pores over a list of Holocaust victims:
"The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank's name, but what got me about it was the fact that right beneath her name there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers, without anyone to mourn them. I silently resolved to remember and pray for the four Aron Franks as long as I was around. (Maybe some people need to believe in a proper and omnipotent God to pray, but I don't.)"
There are little throwaway lines that are full of wry sadness, such as: "His mom and dad wheeled the chair downstairs...bouncing down crazily in a way that would have been dangerous if danger retained its relevance."
The other touching thing about this book, whether the author meant it to be or not, is the Author's Note at the beginning:
"This is not so much an author's note as an author's reminder of what was printed in small type a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up.
"Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."
An interesting contrast to the opening of Go Ask Alice, especially in light of the acknowledgements at the end, which pay tribute to Esther Earl. It's hard not to imagine this book might have been inspired by her, especially when it turns out they had a connection. This article describes Esther as having some similarities to Hazel (as well as the same middle name, Grace). But Hazel is her own character. Inspired or not, it's still a work of fiction. But a work of fiction that packs a wallop.