Diaries of a Dying Teen: Meet the Inspiration Behind 'The Fault in Our Stars'

Best-selling novel “Photo: PenguinThe Fault in Our Stars” so accurately captures the voice of a teenage girl, it’s hard to believe that anyone other than an actual teenage girl wrote it. But author John Green certainly had some help delving deep into the life of a 16-year-old cancer patient. While Green has always insisted that the 2012 work is not based on Esther Earl — the late Boston teen to whom he dedicated the book — there’s no doubt that she had a profound impact on the story.

Now, with a movie adaptation starring Shailene Woodley slated for release this summer, Esther is getting to tell her own story through a posthumous collection of diary entries, blog posts, sketches, and letters from friends and family titled “This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl.” It proves once and for all that Esther Grace Earl and Hazel Grace Lancaster, while similar, are not one and the same. 

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If you're unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Grace Lancaster as she falls in love with Augustus Waters, a boy she meets at a cancer support group. After being published in 2012, it hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, skyrocketed author John Green to literary stardom, and accumulated masses of die-hard devoted fans in all age groups (track the hashtag #TFIOS on social media for proof).

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Lots of people know the story of Hazel Grace from the book, but many don't know anything about Esther Earl, the inspiration for the character. Esther (Persian for "star," which became her nickname) was born on Aug. 3, 1994, in the Boston suburb of Beverly, Massachusetts, the third of five children. Thanks to her parents' jobs as professors, the family moved all over the world, from Saudi Arabia to Germany to the French Alps. It was while living in France that the Earls received the news that would forever change their lives: Esther was diagnosed with metastasized papillary thyroid cancer with tumors in her lungs at just 12 years old. After Esther had a close brush with death, the Earls relocated to Boston in order to make sure their daughter could receive the best treatment.

Rather than letting her illness — which caused serious fatigue and required her to use an oxygen tank — keep her from socializing, she found a social life online, with novelist John Green's legion of followers, who had dubbed themselves "the nerdfighters." Through the virtual community she found friends, shared her story on Skype, blogs, and vlogs, and even developed a personal relationship with Green himself. The author became her champion both online and IRL (nerdfighter-speak for "in real life"), even making a trip to visit the teen as part of the wish she was granted by the Make-a-Wish Foundation in August 2010. Their meeting came just in time. Later that month, on Aug. 25, 2010, Esther passed away at age 16.

Esther's sister Abigail, Esther, and John Green (Photo: Courtesy of Penguin)“Esther helped me understand how empathetic teenagers could be, which is at the core of Hazel's character,” Green tells Yahoo Shine. "I also tried to borrow Esther's wit and cleverness, which, as you can see in 'This Star Won’t Go Out,' she possessed in abundance."

While Green is emphatic that Hazel is a character he created and is not actually supposed to be Esther, the similarities between the two are hard to miss. Both Esther and Hazel loved to read —  Esther was a Wizarding World of Harry Potter superfan, and Hazel was obsessed with the obscure (and fake) book “An Imperial Affliction.” Both listed reality shows as guilty pleasures — Esther even enjoyed “Jon & Kate Plus 8” (back before the couple imploded). And the teens definitely shared a wise-beyond-their-years perspective on life, love, and even death. Interestingly, there's also a pretty strong resemblance between Esther and actress Woodley, who plays Hazel in the upcoming film.

But there are differences, too. Big differences. While "The Fault in Our Stars" focuses on the love story between Hazel and a boy, Esther dreamed of having her first kiss. Hazel was an only child, and Esther had four siblings. Hazel was shy and introverted, while Esther went to great lengths to make sure her illness didn’t hold her back from making new friends — even when she was stuck in bed. Hazel revealed her hopes, dreams, and fears with only her inner circle, but Esther shared her story with the world, and continues to do so even after her death. “We knew she had a story that resonated with such a large audience,” Esther's mother, Lori Earl, tells Yahoo Shine. “She had a real gift for being able to interact and communicate with all ages.”   

Esther had already written and shared her story online through her many blog posts and videos, but her father, Wayne Earl, made a promise to compile them all and write her biography, which also includes heart-rending notes to and from friends, family, and supporters. “Her message was something that I didn’t want to see die with her. I told her, 'I’m going to write your story and tell people,'” he tells Yahoo Shine. “The book is touching people’s lives. This is the celebration of a life, not a death. She had a beautiful death. She was very strong and very brave, but her life is really what is touching people.”

More than three years after her death, Esther's voice survives: on the Internet, in her book, through the charity founded in her memory, and, as many believe, on the pages (and soon, the big screen) of "The Fault in Our Stars."

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