John Green Is the John Hughes of Relatable YA Literature

This week, John Green’s debut novel, 2005’s Printz Award winner Looking For Alaska, is being reissued in a “10th anniversary edition.” The new edition includes a new introduction by the author — “That’s the story of my Great Perhaps” — some calendar ephemera, and an expansive, twenty-page long FAQ at the back. The book, originally published in March 2005, may have announced Green as a writer to watch, but it wasn’t the beginning of Green as endless phenomenon, leader of the Nerdfighter community online and offline.

That came later with the online birth and eventual cult of Green’s videoblogging career, beginning in 2007. Looking For Alaska would hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2012, seven years after its initial release. Between then, Green would publish four more novels — An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, half of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and The Fault in Our Stars.

The Fault in Our Stars, about two teens with cancer who fall in love — made into this year’s tearjerker movie with Shailene Woodley — was what broke him out into the mainstream, making him a name that even adults found familiar, garnering a New Yorker profile, and spurring our arguments about the worth of YA fiction. It also made it clear that the appeal of John Green is something deeper than just good work: he is the John Hughes of the millennial generation.

The comparison has been around for a bit, but the first time I read that “John Green is the millennial generation’s John Hughes” was in a writeup by John Warner for the 2013 Tournament of Books. Warner has strong feelings towards Hughes’ 80s oeuvre of psychologically accurate teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to The Breakfast Club, “… he seemed to be able to tap into something elemental about being young in the world during the 1980s. The triumphs of Hughes’s characters were not big and awesome, but small and provisional.”

john hughes

Like Hughes, Green is an unassuming midwesterner, older than his target audience, and blessed with a spooky ability to create teen-oriented work that teens adore. While Hughes and Green have been working in two different mediums, film and books, respectively, the writing — and its quality — is paramount, clearly coming first. Where they differ, at least according to Warner, is a matter of scope: Hughes’ characters were rooted in the everyday and mundane, and to Warner, main characters who fight cancer and go to Amsterdam are too extraordinary to be Hughesian, which I suppose is moderately correct regarding Fault; however, Green’s other books, from Alaska to Grayson, are rooted in high school mundanity. The extraordinary comes from teens finding themselves through something like love or obsessions, the big, giant concepts that make life worth living.

Former Flavorwire literary editor Jason Diamond — who is, like Werner, a native of John Hughes-ville (i.e. Chicago’s northern suburbs)— sees the similarity between the two writers as one of intent. As he writes in an email, “It’s the respect and sympathy Green has for his characters that makes me think of Hughes when I read his stuff. Hughes considered himself a writer first and foremost, and both he and Green also do a great job of writing stories about teens that adults really love. I think that’s really difficult to pull off.”

Ironically, however, Green himself feels a distance between what he writes, what he wants to see on the big screen regarding today’s teenagers, and the work and legacy of John Hughes. In a May interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he says that Hollywood’s take on the teen experience is often dated, and “more like a John Hughes movie than it [really] is.” He sees realistic teens as living complex lives online and offline nowadays, and notes that when Hollywood respects the intelligence of teens, in films like Mean Girls and Easy A, they’re rewarded with hits.

Perhaps it’s a studied distancing on Green’s part. Who wants to be the next anything? But phenomenons like Hughes and Green come around once in a generation, and their ability to connect with a wide audience is something to pay attention to, something worth writing about.

In recent interviews, Green has been modest about what he’s working on next novel-wise, and honest about his struggles with anxiety. In Hollywood, an adaptation of his book Paper Towns just filmed, starring Cara Delevingne and slated for release this year.

After this year, things probably feel different for Green. He’s not going to fly under the radar anymore — rather, he’s in the upper echelon now, a single name that’s code for what teens like, how kids feel, and how we can understand some of the issues that drive a new generation. It’s a heady responsibility, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he can hold onto this zeitgeist. Even though he’s cultivated his own salivating fanbase of nerdfighters, will they grow and change along with Green? It’s certainly possible, if he holds onto his voice — a voice that treats teen problems with the respect and smarts that they deserve.