As it was for many readers, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was one of my top reads for 2012. There is one point with which I would like to take issue. It’s not actually with the book, but rather with the reaction to it: nearly every review I read mentioned Hazel’s line about all cancer books sucking, and again nearly all of these seemed to take this as a gospel truth delivered straight from John Green himself. And this is from whence my issue-taking arises. Because first of all, while I do not personally know John Green, such a statement would be presumptive and arrogant, and based on his online presence, he just doesn’t seem the type.

Second, the quotation is often left at “cancer books suck” ignoring the fact that Hazel is speaking from a specific perspective, about a very specific kind of cancer book. Here’s a bit more of what Hazel has to say:

Like in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged, because s/he will leave  cancer-curing legacy.

She’s talking about books where the disease is used as a blunt tool to teach a lesson to the characters and, by extension, the reader. Suckage indeed.

However, The Fault in Our Stars is not the only cancer book that does not suck. Indeed, there are several recent books about cancer that are quite fantastic. Cancer is not the means by which a lesson is learned. It’s not even really what the stories are about.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork: After his sister is murdered and his father dies in an accident, Pancho goes to live at a home for boys where he meets D.Q. a boy his age who is dying of cancer — and writing The Death Warrior’s Manifesto. Pancho agrees to accompany D.Q. on a trip to home — D.Q.’s mother has one last cure she wants to try while D.Q. has his own ideas. As they travel together, Pancho is forced to examine his own mission of avenging his sister’s murder. Here the story isn’t about cancer or death, but about choices.

After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick: This is a sequel to Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, and tells the story of Jeffrey and his friend Tad, both kids in remission. Jeffrey’s cancer has left him struggling with math, while Tad’s has made it extraordinarily painful to walk. They make a deal (more like a bet), that Tad will help Jeffrey pass the math test necessary for 8th grade graduation, and Jeffrey, an avid biker, will train Tad so he can walk across the stage. In the meantime, Tad is working on a plan that will help Jeffrey, and shows the lengths friends will go to help one another. There is indeed a charity of sorts in this book, as Jeffrey does a yearly ride to raise money — but it’s all on his own, no audience, please. There is a dearth of books about male friendships, and this book nicely fills that hole.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, based upon an idea by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay: In this novel, it is the mother who has cancer. Her son, Conor, is not only dealing with this, but also the nightly arrival of a monster out by the yew tree demanding that Conor tell him his truth. As in all the best paranormal, the monster functions both literally and as metaphor. Enhanced by Jim Kay’s stunning illustrations, it is a perfect encapsulation of the rage, horror, and hopelessness felt by those left behind.

This topic is especially personal to me not only because I am working on a novel in which the main character’s grandmother is dying of cancer, but because the disease has had a devastating effect on my family. Both grandmothers and my paternal grandfather succumbed to the disease. My mother is a ten year survivor of breast cancer. In April of this year my Uncle Larry, a chef and teacher, passed away after a grueling bout with a rare form of cancer, just after turning 59. He was more like a cousin than an uncle — a friend, a cheerleader, a confidante. He and his wife sang at my wedding (now when I hear Israel  Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” it’s like my uncle is speaking to me.) His wife, Sharyn Murray, is keeping a blog chronicling her grief process, and it is worth a read.

For whatever reason, I chose to read both A Monster Calls and The Fault in Our Stars in the final months of his life. Each gave me a perspective into what he and those closest to him, namely his wife, were going through. I actually almost suggested he read TFIOS, but, when he had energy to read, I imagined he’d like to read to escape, not read to relate.

What’s funny, though, is that while each of these books left me crying, each also reminded me of the essential goodness of humanity — or at least, the potential for goodness. Wouldn’t that just peeve Hazel?

Read-Write: Cancer Books
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