Bestselling author comes to UA

Green discusses writing, emotions, book-banning, humanity

Author John Green attends the premiere of "Paper Towns" in New York in this July 21, 2015 file photo. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Author John Green attends the premiere of "Paper Towns" in New York in this July 21, 2015 file photo. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Author John Green is open about his emotions, and he imbues his Young Adult novels with that same sincere feeling, one reason for their popularity among his devoted readers, he said.

"I love the experience of being close to the marrow of feeling," Green explained Thursday as part of a moderated question-and-answer session for the Distinguished Lectures Committee's series at the Fayetteville Town Center. Thursday's event was sponsored by the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Distinguished Lectures Committee through the Office of Student Activities and supported by the Student Activities Fee.

"Kids get it," and it's important to credit young readers with "a lot of sophistication," not patronize them, he said.

"Young people are really smart, [but] not in the way older people are smart, but that doesn't make them stupid," he said. Teens and adolescents have "very deep" conversations about philosophical life questions and they're sincere in their passion because they've yet to develop "weapons of irony."

In his decades as a high school and college teacher, Sean Connors -- a UA associate professor of curriculum and instruction who moderated Thursday's discussion -- has seen a similar story with students, he said. "I've consistently found young people to be smart and curious."

Green's popular Young Adult books -- several of which have been adapted into movies -- include "Looking for Alaska," "Turtles All the Way Down," "Paper Towns," "An Abundance of Katherines" and "The Fault in Our Stars" and they've sold more than 24 million copies in 55 languages, according to the university. His most recent book, "The Anthropocene Reviewed," was developed from his podcast of the same name and examines different aspects of the contemporary world.

Green has a prominent YouTube presence along with his brother Hank, and they created the channels "vlogbrothers" and "Crash Course," the latter of which provides free educational videos on a variety of topics, according to the university. The Green brothers have nearly 20 million subscribers and more than 2.8 billion views.

Green believes deeply in the power of community to combat loneliness, and he's thrilled that his videos with his brother have created a dedicated online community.

"Loneliness is the most worrisome disease," he said. "I've been lonely a lot in my life, and it's really hard."

Green is "worried and hopeful" about the future of humanity, because "we are powerless in a lot of ways -- we can't save ourselves or those we love from suffering -- but we have also solved tremendous problems together," he said. "We're capable of great things, and we can be wonderful to one another, but we also fail one another so profoundly."

Green has worked to raise awareness about tuberculosis and lower the cost of the drugs used to treat the disease, as well as to improve maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone through the strength of his online community.

"The last few years, our big focus has been on responding to long-term challenges," he said. "Real progress has been made, [and] we've been able to find a lot of hope."

He's also spoken out against various book bans across the nation, which have targeted some of his books, among many others. Though Green has no issue with an individual parent not wanting his or her own child to read a given book, he doesn't believe the right to read that book should be taken away from all children in a given class or community.

By trying to "protect" their child, these parents are marginalizing and harming "so many people" who have already been marginalized and harmed, he said. "Almost all of these books" that are challenged and/or banned are either about people of color or members of the LGBTQ community or authored by people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, and "that's just the reality."

"It's important to see yourself in books, but also really important to see others in books and deeply empathize with them and their struggles," he said. "The books that lit me up in high school" -- and helped kindle the fire that made him a writer -- "get banned all the time now."

Connors concurred, noting that he's seen how many of today's challenged and/or banned books "really touch and strike a chord with young people."

Society has trusted librarians and teachers as "experts" on literature, so when parents try to supersede their judgment, it violates an established "covenant," Green said. He also has a covenant with his readers, that they will read thoughtfully and carefully, and that -- in return -- he won't waste their time or "be a jerk" with his writing.

That's why he takes it personally when his books are challenged or banned, he said. He's been approached in grocery stores and accused of being "a groomer" and he's received hate mail at his home with accusations of "sexualizing kids."

"It hurts my feelings to say I hurt kids in my work," he said. "That's the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do."

Green attended a boarding school in Alabama and emerged with a desire to write, as well as to understand the humanity of others, he said. "I just loved writing, [and it] gave me great comfort and satisfaction."

He later spent seven months working in a children's hospital, and while he's never written directly about that experience, every book has been informed by it, he said. "It made me a different person, [and] writing fiction is a way of coming askance at something."

Connors was "really pleased and excited" when he learned that Green would be visiting for a lecture, and students were similarly enthusiastic, he said. "I've never seen students so excited."

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