Sunday 17 November 2019

The nerd who never forgets to be

The news hit last December: could it be true? Were they really coming to Dublin? Facebook was abuzz and texts were flying. American writer John Green and his brother, Hank, would be coming to Dublin in February. Tickets for the gig at the RDS last week sold out as fast as you could say "vlogbrothers".

If you're aged over 20, chances are you've never heard of John Green. Bewildered parents were ringing the Penguin Ireland office to ask who he was and if there was any chance of a ticket for their frantic teenager.

The phones at Penguin (his publishers) were jammed by teenagers on a desperate hunt for tickets and taking the matter into their own hands. But all the tickets – more than a thousand of them – were snapped up within the first few days. And this was for a talk by a writer.

It's like a secret underground movement. On a rainy night last week, teenagers travelled from all over the country to see John and Hank Green. (John later tweeted: @realjohngreen: 1,000 people in Dublin tonight sounded like 100,000. Never felt anything like that in my life before. Thanks, Ireland!)

A throng of 1,000 studded teens with banners of support, messages of love and books under their arms packed the library in the RDS – and it's a big space.

It felt like a rock concert. But this was a book event. Fever rose, arms waved and noise levels became unbearable until at last the screaming teens welcomed their idol on stage. John Green, looking cool but nerdy, with his short hair and glasses and wearing a white preppy shirt out over his jeans, spoke into the mike and the manic but well-behaved crowd hushed, bar the odd screech of adoration.

He started by telling his fans about the background to his recent novel, The Fault In Our Stars. The crowd remained silent as he described the time he spent working as a chaplain in a children's hospital and how he got to know a girl called Esther who had cancer, how she had lived and died and inspired him.

Yet this is far from a sentimental novel, and these young adults know it. Many of them will be familiar with his previous novels, Looking For Alaska (2005), An Abundance Of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008).

The Fault In Our Stars was first published in the US in January last year, and was No 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. It was a big seller on this side of the Atlantic too, and Puffin (part of Penguin) has just published a paperback edition.

It's an original contemporary American novel about teen life and love – the difference is that the teenagers in question happen to have cancer. Sixteen-year-old Hazel, who tells the story, is tethered to an oxygen tank; Augustus is in remission.

The characters are troubled, witty and perceptive, and the dialogue is smart and funny. Hazel and Gus relate in an intelligent and humorous way, and that is what John Green is about – intellect and humour.

His writing appeals to clever, funny young people, and the RDS library, a fitting venue, was jam-packed with them. "You'll have to imagine I'm a 16-year-old girl," he said, before reading from the novel to the enthralled crowd.

He then welcomed his younger brother to the stage. Cue more screams and screeches. Hank was smiling and swinging his guitar and launched straight into a song about waiting for the next Harry Potter novel, 'Accio Deathly Hallows'.

'Accio' didn't need any explanation for this audience, but for the uninitiated reader, it's a summoning charm from the Potter series.

The crowd knew the words and they began to sing along enthusiastically, but Hank asked them just to wave instead. They love this guy who writes these uber-clever rhyming lyrics. They know him well from his massive online presence which includes regular video blogs (vlogs) and the brothers' Nerdfighters site, www.nerdfighters.com, "a place where nerds gather and play . . . we fight to increase awesome and decrease suck".

The brothers' oft-repeated catchphrase, "Don't forget to be awesome" – DFTBA – which is seen on lots of T-shirts and is also the name of their record label, is often followed by the Nerd fighter "gang sign", similar to the Vulcan salute from Star Trek but done on both hands instead of one, with arms crossed and palms facing inwards.

The brothers post their vlogs: thoughts, travels and songs, and they answer questions sent to them about life, love and matters nerdfighterish, on Tuesdays and Fridays.

They have a massive online following – John has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers and almost 700,000 subscribers to Vlogbrothers, the YouTube channel he created with Hank.

The brothers are also heavily involved with a new online video educational project called CrashCourse, where John teaches world history and literature and Hank teaches ecology and biology. Hank also features in SciShow, which delivers complex scientific concepts in an easy-to-understand way.

Check out their recent post-Dublin visit blog, The Space Time Continuum: Thoughts from Dublin, at nerdfighters.com or vlogbrothers on YouTube.

They're more than a unique writing-performing duo with millions of followers. They and their nerdfighting force are a global phenomenon.

For those bright youngsters here who have yet to read The Fault In Our Stars (can there be any who missed it?), the paperback edition is now in the shops.

It's also a cross-over book which has become a hit with adult readers too, with an impact that has been compared to that of David Nicholls' One Day and Before I Die by Jenny Downham.

Paddy O'Doherty is the former editor of the Children's Books Ireland (CBI) magazine.

Irish Independent

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