I was going to start this post with a jaded summary of all the awful generalisations I’ve heard about young people recently, in order to provide a stark contrast with what I’m going to write next. I even had a handful of sentences outlining the choicest (and consequently, most objectionable) examples when I realised that, by implication, I was creating a generalisation just as foul: that is, that many adults don’t think much of our teenagers. I don’t believe this is true. Many adults devote their lives to teens, whether as teachers, librarians, community activists, parents or authors.
I know there are many categories, but the more I listed, the more obvious and awkward the omissions would be.
I could write at length about the many friends and peers I’m lucky enough to know who value teenagers (and deservedly so), but I’m afraid it would be a pretty dry read. So consider yourself spared. (I’m assuming you’ll just trust me on this.) Sometimes I think you just have to take your cue from teenagers themselves. In my own experience, teenagers represent themselves best when they’re doing something they’re passionate or fanatical about (with a few obvious exceptions). And in my very recent experience, teenagers are an awesome (in every sens of the word) force to be reckoned with when they’re passionate and fanatical in large numbers. So perhaps we just need to provide them with opportunities for this.
Which brings me on to The Fault in Our Stars – Live…
I was privileged to find myself in the company of around a thousand excited, animated and borderline hysterical teens last Wednesday night. If I had been transposed into the mass with no knowledge of context (and with my eyes shut) I would have placed myself at the centre of a crowd at a pop concert (I just realised how old that phrase makes me seem). Indeed the cacophonous zeal around me reminded me of the atmosphere at my first ever concert in the Point Depot (concert venue in Dublin, for those outside the Emerald Isle). But even that (Ash, and I was 14, if you’re interested) wasn’t as loud or fervent as the Concert Hall in the RDS this week. Instead of band t-shirts, the clothes of the teenagers surrounding me were displaying pithy quotes from books. A few had the word ‘Nerd’ scrawled on their forearms.
So what was enthusing the crowd? The prospect of seeing their favourite author and his younger brother on stage. In fairness, John Green is probably not a typical author, even within the Young Adult genre. His accessibility helps: he blogs almost daily on Tumblr, often interjecting in fans’ posts about him (to their disbelieving delight); he and his brother Hank post weekly video blogs under the collective name Vlogbrothers; he tweets regularly too, regularly engaging with his fans through this medium. But not everyone this prolific receives the same level of adulation.
John Green’s books are obviously a major element in his popularity. I’m a recent convert. I’m not going to review them here, but as a future librarian, I can assure you that they will feature heavily in any Young Adult collection I have the pleasure to curate. All but one has a teenage, male protagonist (the latest, and the book that lends its title to this particular tour, The Fault in Our Stars, has a female narrator). The protagonists are likeable, three-dimensional and reassuringly normal. Most are more than slightly nerdy too, and this seems to be the key to their author’s elevated position.
Evangelical followers of John and his guitar-strumming younger brother Hank are known as “Nerdfighters”, and I can assure you that the force was most definitely with the Irish Nerdfighters on Wednesday night. They have a special pose (kind of like a double Vulcan V with the forearms crossed over) and their catchphrase is ‘Don’t forget to be awesome’ (or DFTBA). If you want to find out more about what Nerdfighters are all about, you should check out what Eff Yeah Nerdfighters have to say. When I found a seat at the event (and it was a pretty good one: attending solo often has this perk) I was immediately struck by the extreme volume being generated by the rows around me. Every few minutes the rolling chatter was interrupted by a piercing shriek of “DFTBA”.
What was so energising about this crowd was that it was full of highly intelligent, self-professed nerds. Hank, the younger Green, plays the guitar and played several songs with topics such as quarks, Harry Potter and deep sea anglerfish. I was one of the few not singing along. I will admit that I wished that my fifteen year old self could have been a part of this movement. I still enjoyed it (very much) and I was in awe of the Green brothers’ ability to tune into the pulse of the teens in the crowd. They spoke the lingo, mentioned the music and the books they loved. They didn’t, even once, speak down to the crowd. Their vocabulary was unchecked (which is characteristic of John Green’s novels and the brothers’ YouTube videos). They did comment on the volume of the crowd – I had assumed this level of noise might have been a regular occurrence at their gigs, but it seems the Irish crowd may have surpassed the norm. John Green mentioned this again afterwards on Twitter.
Every audience member was given a free, signed copy of The Fault in Our Stars as part of their €12.99 ticket fee. While John and Hank didn’t take photos with fans afterwards, they did strike a few poses on stage and encouraged fans to Photoshop themselves in and tag them on Tumblr (this has been taken up after every night of the “TFiOSlive” tour and the results are creative and hilarious). They stayed on to sign whatever fans had brought with them. As a bibliophile it warmed me to the core to see bustling queues of teens carrying tottering bundles of dog-eared books.
I slipped out before the queue had advanced too far. As my copy of The Fault in Our Stars was left with the impression of John’s signature (a scribbled ‘John’ in green ink) and Hank’s trademark ‘Hanklerfish’ (in pink), my whole being was marked by the whole spectacle. I felt incredibly emotional to see so many Irish teenagers going absolutely bonkers over an author. But even more than that, I had seen an example of how treating young people a certain way – in this case as intelligent, vibrant, important human beings – provides an incentive and clears a path for self-actualisation.
And if I came away with any messages, they would be thus: words matter; books matter; enthusiasm, nerdery, intellectual engagement and being free to indulge in the power of fiction all matter; and, finally, giving teens the space, inspiration and self-belief to achieve what they had the potential to achieve anyway, is perhaps the greatest thing we can do.
Wednesday night was another of those moments where my calling to YA librarianship became clearer.
The Fault in Our Stars Live event in Dublin on 6th February 2013 was made possible with the help of Penguin (UK and Ireland) and Easons. Special mention should go to the Easons YA book buyer who introduced the Greens… Can anyone help me out with his name?