Cancer is no joke. Or so not one but two agents told me a few years ago, when I shared with them a book idea I’d been working on, a new young adult novel about a teenage girl whose mother is fighting breast cancer and who must decide if and when to take the genetic test that will reveal her own chances of the same fate. I was grappling with my own mother’s diagnosis of stage four breast cancer and, as writers are known to do, dealing with it my own way: by
drinking my face off fictionalizing it.
You see, I wanted to make the book funny, maybe not knee-slapping, uvula-baring funny, but wry smile and a single caustic “ha” funny. I was told, and not just by these agents but also by an editor and a trusted friend, that the idea just wouldn’t sell, the emotional whiplash of premature mortality and boob jokes was just too much for teens to handle. A couple years later, The Fault in Our Stars came out. Granted, I’m no John Green, and, even as Hazel Grace Lancaster puts it, “cancer books suck,” but I still felt vindicated with a heaping side of “I told you so.”
These days in YA, there’s a whole pseudo-genre of books about dying teens that critics have too easily dubbed “sick lit.” In my opinion, the best are the ones that are as hilarious as they are heart-rending. Here are five.
Somebody Up There Hates You, by Hollis Seamon
Richard Casey is convinced the Big Guy is out to get him, and at 17, in hospice and in lust with a fellow patient whose father is a bourbon-breathing, grieving beast, it’s not so hard to see why . More than a love story, this book (released earlier this month) is about a teen holding tightly to his right to be a teen, even as he lets go. An alleyway handie from a sweet but lost Marie Antoinette on a Halloween hospice breakout is a highlight.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
The book against which all Funny Dying Teen books will be judged. John Green is arguably at his best since Looking for Alaska in this raw and irreverent love story set against a race against time on this earth. Hazel and Gus meet at a Support Group for kids with cancer, and the Green-obligatory all-consuming romance and road trip (this time to Amsterdam) ensue. Green always seems to make the right choices, and this time, to quote Hazel, “You have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories, and [he] made the funny choice.”
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
Greg Gaines, his friend Earl, and Dying Girl Rachel are brought together by mutual respect for the films of Werner Herzog, Rachel’s leukemia, and Greg’s mother, who is insistent that Greg befriend said dying girl. Greg is a pathologically self-deprecating aspiring filmmaker whose narrative style, like his film homage to Rachel (Rachel the Film), is “perhaps most noteworthy for its confusing mishmash of styles,” featuring “absurdist one-offs with extremely limited relevance to the subject matter.”
Deadline, by Chris Crutcher
One of Crutcher’s proudest accomplishments, according to his website, is being one of the most frequently banned authors in North America. Deadline is one of his oft-challenged books, in which Ben Wolf finds out in his senior year of high school that he has one year to live, and decides to keep that fact a secret while living the life he has left to the fullest. Even cancer, bipolar disorder, a right-wing U.S. government teacher, and a child molester don’t keep the laughs from coming.
The Probability of Miracles, by Wendy Wunder
More cancer! More sarcasm! More last wishes and last laughs! Not only has Cam’s dad died, but now she’s dying from cancer too. When the only thing that can save her is a miracle, her mom picks up and moves her and her younger sister to a magical, healing town in Maine looking for just that. Ironic, considering they’re moving from Disney World, that place “where dreams come true”™. There’s a car named Cumulus, a donkey theft, and, of course, a love interest.
What do you think? Should any subject be off the table for YA books?