By: Kate Lechtenberg
I just finished Turtles All the Way Down, and John Green’s book filled with metaphors about mental illness made me cry — not so much for Aza, the main character whose thought-spirals animate the book, but for John Green himself. Green’s new novel ponders the many metaphors we use to describe pain, mental illness and the narratives of our lives, but I left the book with my own new metaphor:
John Green is intellectual freedom.
It’s probably more accurate to say that John Green’s writing exemplifies everything I believe about what intellectual freedom is and why the freedom to read is important. But that doesn’t capture the emotional weight I felt when I finished his most recent book, so I’m sticking with the John Green metaphor. For all the intellectual acrobatics that Green sends his characters through, the book ends with one of the most palpably human, vulnerable conclusions I’ve read in a long while. And that conclusion made me thankful that John Green writes books for young people, and for all of us.
Maybe some literary critics (or even John Green himself) wouldn’t like the fact that I ended the book thinking about John Green and not about Aza Holmes, his main character. They might say that the omnipresence of John Green in a John Green book is the fatal flaw in his work (and the fatal flaw in this blog post. WordPress is telling me I’ve used “John Green” too many times already). But for me, John Green’s ethos of embracing complexity, curiosity and empathy is what makes his books, YouTube videos and online projects like the Project for Awesome so compelling, so human and so essential to my understanding of what intellectual freedom is and why we should protect it in libraries and schools.
So here’s my explication of the “John Green is intellectual freedom” metaphor.
He cares deeply about questions.
In his 2016 vlogbrothers video responding to the news that Looking for Alaska was the most banned or challenged book of 2015, he said, “I don’t believe that books, even bad books, corrupt us. Instead, I believe books challenge and interrogate. They gives us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so we can better see ourselves. And ultimately, if you have a worldview that can be undone by a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel.”
The ALA defines intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” John Green’s books are full of questions, and his unflinching willingness to wrestle with even the darkest possible answers — and to do it with humor, grace and a (mostly) light-hearted self awareness — is the embodiment of intellectual freedom.
He cares deeply about honesty.
Turtles All the Way Down is his most personal book, and he shared his own experience with mental illness in a 2016 Medium post, “My Nerdcon Stories Talk about Mental Illness and Creativity.” Toward the end of Turtles, John Green’s Aza reflects, “I know a shrink would say, Write it down, how you got here,” and it is so clear that he has done just that.
John Green’s previous books Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars have that same kind of ripped-from-my-heart honest-pursuit-of-knowledge-and-growth, and so do his vlogs and other online projects. Whether he’s talking about “Trump and Russia: An introduction to what we know (and what we don’t)” or “Why life is like pizza” on YouTube, or whether he’s talking about literature or history on Crash Course, or whether he’s promoting charities and “online creators decreasing world suck” through the Project for Awesome, John Green’s entire body of work is about honestly facing what’s before him, seeking new understandings and considering new perspectives.
His personal and honest approach to learning is what intellectual freedom is all about.
He cares deeply about adolescents, his readers.
The most important thing about John Green in my metaphor is that for him, wrestling with curiosity and complexity is not just an intellectual enterprise. The way he explores weakness, darkness and mistakes is a deeply human project, an act of love for his readers and for humanity. OK, maybe I’m getting a little sappy here, but it’s true: the best thing about John Green is that his love and care for young people is so evident in everything he writes.
For the best evidence of John Green’s care for his readers, read Margaret Talbot’s beautiful 2014 profile in The New Yorker, “The Teen Whisperer.” The whole article is a testament to his belief in teenagers, and Talbot ends the piece describing an interaction via Skype between John Green and a group of teens who are cancer survivors. A 15-year-old named Brittany told him, “As a three-year survivor of Stage IV cancer, I can tell you that you got everything right in ‘An Imperial Affliction.’ Or at least you got me right.” The profile ends with this sentence: “Afterward, a teacher wrapped the session up, and everybody waved. The screen went blank. Green put his head down on his arms and cried.”
John Green puts his soul into his books (see “He cares deeply about honesty,” above), and he puts his soul into honoring and caring for the souls of his readers. While some would-be book challengers or banners of Green’s books (or adolescent literature more broadly) view intellectual freedom supporters as radicals who would choose “smutty” books over protecting our children, John Green exemplifies the focus on feeding the soul that comes when readers are trusted to choose.
In sum: intellectual freedom is soul-work, not just mind-work.
Notice that the three legs of my “John Green is intellectual freedom” stool all begin with caring. Sometimes we trap ourselves into intellectualizing “intellectual freedom,” and we fall into separating intellect from emotion. We turn intellectual freedom and the First Amendment into legalese, like the lawyer in Turtles All the Way Down does by focusing on the “the legal entity” of a character’s missing father rather than the humanity of the man.
Reading John Green reminds me that intellectual freedom is a necessary emotional endeavor that is rooted in honesty, compassion and curiosity. We can get distracted by laws and policies and minutia, but we should never forget that in the end, intellectual freedom is about the human need to make meaning of our lives.
One more thing: For all those critics who say that John Green’s teenagers are too loquacious, too precocious, to John Greencious, I want you to know that I’ve known many teenagers who talk and think like his characters. Their names are Adam and Reed, and they introduced me to his books. And their names are Allie, Victoria, Andrew, Claire, Hannah, Katelyn, Amy, Paige, Sunya, Cinnamon, Creighton, Crystal and Daniel. Some of them love John Green’s books and some hate them, but they are all complex thinkers who have reminded me that adolescents are just as complex as writers like Green give them credit for.
Final note: Can John Green please win the Margaret A. Edwards Award, a YALSA award for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature,” this year? Please?
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.