By Bob Minzesheimer)
Were it not for the Internet, novelist John Green might never have met and become friends with Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16.
But before she did, she inspired Green's best-selling 2012 novel aimed at teens, The Fault in Our Stars. The love story is narrated by a spunky, sarcastic 16-year-old girl with thyroid cancer.
Now, four years after her death, Esther's book, This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl (Dutton), compiled with her parents' help, is being published Tuesday. Green wrote the introduction.
The 431-page book, built around Esther's diary, e-mails, blogs and videos, is the story of a bright and funny girl, diagnosed with cancer at 12, coming to terms with mortality.
But it's also the story of what her parents, Lori and Wayne Earl, both teachers at Quincy (Mass.) College, came to see as the brighter side of the Internet and how, at its best, it connects people.
They know that parents of teens worry, with good reason, about the Internet's dark side, home to predators and pornography.
But Wayne, 55, who teaches philosophy and is an ordained Congregational minister, says, "We always trusted Esther who became kind of our guide to the Internet."
The book recalls how in 2009, Esther, tethered to an oxygen tank, met Green for the first time in real-life (or IRL, as she would put it). They were at a convention of Harry Potter fans in Boston where Green's brother Hank, a singer-songwriter, was performing.
Esther, an avid reader, admired Green's debut 2006 novel, Looking for Alaska, about an attractive, bright and emotionally unstable girl named Alaska.
And she knew the novelist -- in an Internet kind of way -- from the quirky videos he and his brother posted for teens whom the Greens call "nerdfighters." (Their YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, now has 1.7 million subscribers.)
Nerdfighters, as Green defines them, "fight for nerds and celebrate intellectualism." They discuss music, books and ideas.
Esther, he says, "wasn't just a viewer of our videos, she was a hardcore nerdfighter," who helped maintain the Nerdfighters' biggest fan site.
“The Internet is what you make of it. It can be used for distraction and dishonesty. Or you can choose to use it to extend and enrich our friendships and conversations, the way Esther did.'”
— John Green
Her mom, Lori, 50,, who teaches psychology and sociology, recalls thinking, "'Esther isn't a 'nerd!' But then I saw how much it connected her to other kids who shared her passions and interest in things like Wizard Rock (music inspired by Harry Potter). On the Internet, she wasn't just a girl with cancer tied to an oxygen tank. The Internet changed her life for the better."
As Green sees it, "The Internet is what you make of it. It can be used for distraction and dishonesty. Or you can choose to use it to extend and enrich our friendships and conversations, the way Esther did.''
In her diary, Esther, who completed ninth grade at North Quincy High School, writes about her favorite TV shows (including Lost for "its biblical references and mythological feel"), confesses to once getting drunk on two glasses of wine and jokes about sitting near a restaurant's fireplace "but not too close ... no one wants an oxygen tank explosion."
She also wrote about cancer:
From 2007: "You know, I have a really great attitude about this cancer thing. I smile, laugh and joke about it. I only have meltdowns like once a month. And I normally only have them in my room – away from people."
From 2008, after the cancer had begun to spread: "I do think about dying a lot, but I don't know. I feel like I've finally like, grasped that I'd no longer live on Earth. But I'm working on the actual progress of death and the people missing me part, you know?"
In 2010, two months before her death, she described choosing a cemetery plot in Medway, Mass: "Very literally. Nice spot, nonetheless."
Seven weeks before she died, Esther spent a weekend in Boston with her best Internet friends. Green, who joined them for a day from his home in Indianapolis, recalls how they all discussed their happiest memories. Esther's occurred a year earlier, when she was hospitalized with pneumonia and was thought to be dying. Green recalls Esther "spoke about having her whole family around her, holding hands with them, feeling connected to these people who loved her infinitely."
When he was 21, Green worked as a student chaplain at a children's hospital in Columbus, Ohio (which, he confesses, " I was not good at"). Green, now 36, struggled to write a novel about kids with cancer. "The tone was too angry and bitter."
He says he didn't want his friendship with Esther "to become a research project" for his novel. "I never wanted to appropriate her story."
It wasn't after until Esther's death that Green returned to the novel that became The Fault in Our Stars. (The title comes from Shakespeare. Coincidentally, Esther's dad nicknamed her "Star.")
Green says Hazel, the narrator of his novel, "is very different from Esther, not nearly as sick, and without all the online friends Esther enjoyed." But getting to know Esther helped Green "imagine teenagers as more empathetic than I'd given them credit for," and reminded him, "a short life can also be a good and rich life."
Esther's parents, who live in Quincy, say they loved Green's novel, even if it triggered memories of Esther.
"Most of the similarities (between Esther and Hazel) were small things like their oxygen tanks," Lori says. "I see them as different people, but I think Esther would have liked Hazel." (In the novel, Hazel finds romance in a cancer support group; Esther didn't live long enough to have a boyfriend, although, as her dad mentioned in her eulogy, she once kissed a boy.)
After his daughter's death, Wayne compiled her writings which he planned to self-publish "for family and friends."
He sent a copy to Green who sent it to his editor at Dutton who saw the potential for a book by and about Esther, with family photos and essays by her friends, parents and her two older sisters and two younger brothers.
Her oldest sister, Abigail, 24, a waitress in San Diego, says that reading Esther's book brings back memories "good and sad." She adds, "in a way it's hard to read, but good to read. I guess you would say, it's a good hard thing."
Esther's mom says someone told her the book would bring "closure."
But she doesn't think of it that way: "When there's grief, it never quite closes. But I do feel a sense of coming full circle."
Esther's dad adds that his daughter wanted to be an author as early as third grade, "and now, she is.''