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'Fault in our stars' author John Green's candor about his own mental illness is a gift

Chicago Tribune - 10/31/2017

Oct. 30--For his last two novels, "The Fault in Our Stars" and "Turtles All the Way Down," young adult author John Green has been working in the tradition of the "problem novel."

Sometimes also known as the "social novel," a problem novel takes an issue and seeks to use the narrative to bring the reader around to a particular stance on the issue.

Upton Sinclair wrote problem novels; John Steinbeck did too. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a quintessential example.

Young adult problem novels tend to eschew the social for the personal, and the goal is not to convince so much as demystify. Consider Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," which tackled menstruation and was somehow scandalous at the time.

Though, as Laura Miller relates in her review of "Turtles All the Way Down," Green is remixing the problem novel, adding in "confectionary romantic comedy and a tear-jerker and a detective story and a high school friendship drama" with the problem at the center of the drama: central character Aza Holmes' struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Miller and others have highly praised the novel for its rendering of what it's like to live with OCD. Green's prose simulates the "thought spirals" Aza experiences when she worries about microbes and infection; the result is claustrophobic and harrowing. It's a very powerful novel, as was "The Fault in Our Stars," which explored a relationship between two teens who meet in a cancer support group.

But I think there is another aspect of Green's work we should be praising: As part of the publicity tour for the book, Green has been speaking clearly and frankly about his own mental health, including difficulties with anxiety, depression and OCD. He's doing it in a way that I am convinced will help those who struggle with these conditions.

As part of the Vlogbrothers video channel Green runs with his brother Hank, Green has long been honest about his mental health, including explaining that the five-plus year gap between novels was at least partly due to managing his illness.

But in interviews with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" and John Moe on his "The Hilarious World of Depression" podcast, Green goes considerably deeper to share the experience of living with mental health challenges.

Adults may not quite understand this, but to young people, Green is a rock star, and to have someone who is so treasured and admired so forthrightly admit his frailty must be a great gift to others who struggle similarly.

With Gross, as she probed the specific source of Green's obsessions -- Aza fears an infection known as c. difficile -- Green demurred, politely, saying how he very deliberately wasn't naming it for fear it may risk sending him into his own spiral. We learn that his problem is not something put behind him as he triumphantly peddles his book, but an ongoing part of who he is and how he lives.

To Moe, Green described his own erroneous thinking: that he would somehow be more himself if he stopped taking his medication -- again, a struggle Aza shares. It's something Green said he recognizes as foolish in hindsight, but also knows is a choice governed by his illness -- and a learning experience.

Each year, more young people are diagnosed with anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. Having someone like Green speaking so publicly and writing so well about these problems is a real gift.

John Warner is the author of "Tough Day for the Army."

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read next based on the last five books you've read.

1. "Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You" by Todd Hasak-Lowy

2. "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

3. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

4. "Grant Park" by Leonard Pitts Jr.

5. "The Hate You Give" by Angie Thomas

-- Brown P., Evanston

I do not think I can hang with Brown in recommending something in the Y.A. category, so I'm going a little off that to a personal favorite of the past few years: "How to Start a Fire" by Lisa Lutz.

1. "Into the Water" by Paula Hawkins

2. "Lucky Boy" by Shanthi Sekaran

3. "All the Ugly and Wonderful Things" by Bryn Greenwood

4. "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware

5. "Dark Matter" by Blake Crouch

-- Shelby D., Highwood

For Shelby, it's time for some Megan Abbott, who like Lisa Lutz is a writer on HBO's "The Deuce." Here's to television networks recognizing the talent of novelists to bring great stories to the screen. "The Fever" is the book of choice.

1. "The Address" by Fiona Davis

2. "The Late Show" by Michael Connelly

3. "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry" by Neil deGrasse Tyson

4. "A Robot in the Garden" by Deborah Install

5. "Enemy of the State" by Vince Flynn and Kyle Mills

-- K. Rossi, Hobart, Ind.

A bit of a risk here because I'm going horror/suspense, rather than thriller or mystery, but Victor Lavalle's "The Changeling" feels like the right call.

Get a reading from the Biblioracle!

Send a list of the last five books you've read to books@chicagotribune.com. Write "Biblioracle" in the subject line.

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(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune

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