Ask any teen reader to name a book that features teens grappling with cancer and you’re likely to get The Fault in our Stars by John Green. Whether they’ve read it or not, and most likely they have, The Fault in our Stars has become the one book that now defines a subgenre of realistic fiction–teens coping with terminal illnesses or living with debilitating conditions.
Certainly John Green wasn’t the first to introduce this theme. Thirty years ago, Lurlene McDaniel cornered the market with books like If I Should Die Before I Wake, I Want to Live and Sixteen and Dying. But today, when a new young adult novel appears that features teens and cancer, the natural assumption is to compare it to The Fault in our Stars. Which is unfortunate, because a new book should stand on its own merits and Zac and Mia by A. J. Betts certainly does.
Drawing on her own experiences as an English teacher in a hospital oncology ward for kids, A. J. Betts knows firsthand of what she writes. She’s crafted a clear, straight forward look at the lives of two teens who react to their cancers in completely different ways. Zac and Mia is a terrific story with plenty of heart and humor. Set in Australia (the author’s home), it has realistic characters, a strong supporting cast and detailed, descriptive settings, especially in the hospital where this story begins.
Zac is in his last few weeks of isolation after a bone marrow transplant. He and his mother have become all too familiar with the hospital routines, the nursing staff, and the returning patients who undergo their cycles of treatment at the oncology ward. In the adult wing, Zac is surprised to discover another teen in the adjoining room and he’s none too happy when her Lady Gaga music threatens to raise his white blood cell count.
Tenuous wall taps lead to online chats and Facebook friending but Zac and Mia are opposites. He’s level-headed and she’s explosive, he’s logical and she’s emotional, he has empathy, she has ego. Both have cancer, but Mia is not exactly grateful when Zac points out that she’s the luckiest one in the oncology ward.
Mia is a prickly character, a once popular girl who’s hiding her condition from school friends and distancing herself from her mom. No longer a pretty face, Mia must confront who she really is and her anger and fear practically leap off the page. She feels so betrayed and blindsided that if Augustus Waters were to tell her that “the world is not a wish granting factory,” she’d probably punch him in the nose. While some readers may find her hard to take, I actually appreciated the honesty behind the raw emotion and selfish perspective.
Luckily, Zac and his family are a great contrast. Zac’s parents, his sister, and brother all work on the family olive farm and petting zoo. The bond between Zac and his mother is the most obvious, but other family members are well-rounded and add to the strong support network that Zac depends on and that eventually draws Mia in, too. Zac yearns for a normal life of outdoor chores and sports and above all, no pity. A scene midway through the book, where he’s given a sports award despite missing most of the season, clearly conveys his humiliation and rarely seen anger.
While I loved The Fault in our Stars and am a big John Green fan, I also loved Zac and Mia for its fresh take on a similar theme. I liked the detailed hospital scenes and the statistics and trivial facts that Zac kept referencing. I loved Zac’s whole wacky family and how genuine they were. And while Zac and Mia’s relationship began more from shared adversity than mutual attraction, I liked its slow evolution toward respect and understanding.
So, read Zac and Mia for the great characters and the emotional resonance of the story. Read it to understand the daily horrors cancer inflicts on its victims, and the small moments of joy that can be shared and treasured in any situation.