John Green talks ‘Turtles,’ YouTube and turning away from YA

April 23, 2024, 1:42 a.m.

What do you get when you cross elephant metaphors, emotional writing and a sneak peek into the life of one of the first YouTubers? 

Last Friday, CEMEX Auditorium hosted New York Times bestselling author John Green in an event organized by the Stanford Speakers Bureau. Known best for his coming-of-age novels and his long-running educational YouTube channel “Crash Course,” Green discussed the importance of young adult fiction, his ongoing efforts in creating accessible online educational content and his involvement in global health activism. The event was moderated by Emily Dearborn, Instructor of Rhetoric and Composition at UC Irvine. 

Green became a household name in the past decade for his young adult (YA) fiction, including “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” and “Turtles All the Way Down.” When asked what about the YA genre or its audience drew him to write books in that space, he said that “it is a real opportunity and power to be in people’s lives when they are forming their values and asking big questions.”

“Falling in love, [experiencing] grief for the first time, asking questions about why we suffer and what justice is – at this age, people can really be influenced by books […] That is why many American writers publish coming-of-age novels, almost reflecting how America forever never grows up,” he said.

Green said that YA differs from other genres since, in YA novels, readers follow the young protagonist’s story as it is narrated in real-time, making them more “exciting” due to the lack of narrative safety. When addressing questions about his future novels, however, he said that he will likely be moving on from the YA genre because he felt more “emotionally and intellectually distant” from the demographic he was portraying in his writing and that there were better novelists in this arena.

Alongside his fame as a writer, many audience members recognized Green from his videos for the YouTube channel “Crash Course,” which he started in 2011 with his brother Hank. When he first began the channel, Green said that YouTube was seen as a place of experimentation – “a Wikipedia for video.” This allowed the brothers to create content based on their areas of interest: John talked about history and politics, while Hank curated videos on science. 

Initially, Green said, Crash Course and SciShow (Hank’s tangential science channel) were designed to be viewed at home by “lifelong learners.” However, they soon found that Crash Course had a new target audience: high school and college students. After acquiring an early-stage investment from YouTube to the tune of 450 thousand dollars, Green said that he and his brother began to revise their content format to make their work relevant and accessible to a student population, consulting with experts such as Khan Academy to find the balance between being fun and informative. 

Green described learning as an “opportunity” to study different domains and understand the context of our current existence; he was tired of viewing learning as “overcoming hurdles to get a piece of paper.” 

In response to a student’s question on advice for starting an educational YouTube channel, Green quipped that being asked for advice was akin to being an elephant in a room of other elephants and being asked to speak on the topic of how to be an elephant. 

“Find a niche,” he said, citing examples like YouTubers Physics Girl and Stefan Milo. “It doesn’t matter how obscure it is, as long as you communicate with passion.”

The talk transitioned to advice for students interested in writing and publishing. Green emphasized that there is no right way to publish, but stressed the need to develop good marketing skills as the burden of promotions would fall on them. He encouraged students to build audiences by authentically contributing to social platforms like Reddit and YouTube before actively using them to market material. 

More importantly, he shared motivation with students on rejection. In his early days of writing, he was rejected from an advanced creative writing class. His writing professor told him that the stories he wrote for his class assignments were not good, but the stories he told in class during break were great. 

“‘Don’t be someone else,’” Green said, quoting his professor. “All those books are written by somebody. Why can’t I be that somebody?’”

Green opened up about personal aspects of his writing process when discussing the upcoming film adaptation of his most recent YA novel, “Turtles All the Way Down.” The novel’s protagonist, like its author, has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Green said that traditionally, the media has portrayed individuals with OCD as objects of ridicule or “freakshows.”

By writing about difficult topics, Green said that he felt like he was implicitly asking the reader to bring their vulnerability and personal struggles to the book as they read his work. According to Green, it was only fair for him as an author to bring that same vulnerability by writing about his personal experiences. 

A book, he said, is a collaboration between the reader and the writer – the reader chooses to focus on certain passages and skip others, like an implicit review. By contrast, the production of a movie is a concerted effort by hundreds of people, each with their own perspectives and ideas. As a result, Green said it was important for him to pick a production team that he trusted to represent the novel’s themes and portrayal of OCD in a nuanced and accurate manner. 

In the final segment of the talk, Dearborn and Green discussed the Green brothers’ involvement in activism and philanthropy, particularly with the health justice organization Partners in Health.  Green described his collaboration with Partners in Health to reduce maternal deaths in Sierra Leone by supporting the creation of a maternal health center and strengthening prenatal care networks. 

When asked how he chose what philanthropic projects to focus his energies on, Green said that although many things were “worth doing,” he trusted experts to assess which crisis areas lacked international attention and had the most potential for making change. Green encouraged students interested in activism to collaborate with others and get involved in or start clubs to advance social change. 

The evening concluded with a lighthearted question: if John would rather fight 10 turtle-sized Hanks or one Hank-sized turtle. Laughing, Green considered the question: “I’d rather fight 10 turtle-sized Hanks. I’ve worked hard to make my life in this world – and it’s hard work, so I’d rather not lose it!” 

After a round of book signings with long-time fans, Green left the thunderously cheering audience with actionable advice and humorous anecdotes. 

Anjali Ragupathi is a writer for Arts & Life. In her spare time, she indulges in fantasy fiction, word and strategy games, food blogging and searching for cute campus pets.

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