Looking for Alaska by John Green

If you’re not familiar with John Green, you have either never been to a book store/ library or you’re incredibly lame. I feel sorry for you if either case is true. John Green has become well known in pop culture as a result of his award-winning young adult novels as well as his YouTube contributions which include video conversations between himself and his brother, Hank Green, known as the Vlog Brothers as well as the channel Mental Floss where he uses his knowledge to enlighten the masses in a fun, pithy way.

Vlog Brothers: http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers

Mental Floss: http://www.youtube.com/user/MentalFlossVideo

In short, John Green is something of a phenomenon right now. And it all started with this book.

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Just a few awards this book has won:

  • Winner, 2006 Michael L. Printz Award
  • Finalist, 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
  • 2006 Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults
  • 2006 Teens’ Top 10 Award
2006 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
  • A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
  • A Booklist Editor’s Choice Pick
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection
  • Borders Original Voices Selection

After begging his parents to let him go, Miles Halter leaves his Florida home to travel to Culver Creek Preparatory High School where he meets a cast of characters including his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin and Takumi, the school bullies, the “Weekday Warriors,” and Alaska Young, the beautiful, bipolar enigma. The students manage to get into the controversial pastimes of young adulthood like smoking, drinking, and sex- and then Alaska’s death that leads the boys to uncover her life’s mysteries and the mysteries of life.

I read Looking for Alaska when I was in high school after reading a short story Green had written that I really enjoyed. However, I had no patience for the book. I think the writing is gorgeous. I just couldn’t stand the characters. They were too brooding and needlessly “complicated” to endure.  I’m also not a huge fan of books set in prep academies. Maybe it’s because I can’t identify with the experience. Now that I’ve (in my opinion at least) matured a little, I have a new appreciation for the novel, but first, my annoyances with the book.

I have a particular pet peeve for Alaska, the girl, because she feeds into the stereotype that I see in many male-written stories. She’s the all too mysterious, unattainable, troubled, and gorgeous girl that the male protagonist pines for. She’s not real. She’s one-dimensional and a flimsy portrayal of a female character. It’s the same thing Green does in many of his books. He creates his female characters to be ideas instead of real people. I think this is dangerous because I’m not sure young readers understand the concept of the unreliable narrator. Just because the narrator views a person in a certain way doesn’t mean that is how they truly are. Green touches on this, but I worry readers won’t consider it enough.

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I DID like Miles’ fascination with biographies and famous people’s famous last words. I think it guides the book in a great artistic direction. I also think the story is a fantastic one for young adults. It’s not my favorite work by Green, but I think it’s worth a read for the narration’s pure gracefulness.

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Essentially: I did not personally find Looking for Alaska to be my cup of tea, but I think other people should try it because we don’t all like the same flavors of tea. Some of us like coffee or soda or just water so…  yeah…

To no one’s surprise, this book has been surrounded by controversy. To begin with, Green dared to write about anything other than teenagers behaving.  The sexually explicit scenes have been called “pornographic” and “disgusting” by concerned parents when teachers in Buffalo, New York taught the book.  Other parents have been angered over the smoking, drinking, and explicit language featured in the novel.

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Green’s defense:

“Some people say, ‘You wrote a dirty, dirty book.’ But there are very old-fashioned values and even a lot of religion in it,” Green said. “There are some adults who think that the only kind of ethics that matter are sexual ethics. So they miss everything else that is going on in the book.” Green also said, “The book has never been marketed to 12-year-olds. Never. It is packaged like an adult book; it doesn’t even say it’s published by a kids’ book imprint on the cover, and it’s never shelved in the children’s section of bookstores.”

Controversy even surrounded the book’s cover art. Learn about it here:

To best sum it up, I hand the microphone to Michael Cart, former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and former chair of the Michael L. Printz committee who says in the publisher’s discussion guide:

“There is nothing (I repeat, NOTHING) gratuitous in this book. Everything in it serves to define character, give style to voice, and develop theme.” This probably describes 95% of all books banned for similar reasons.

My opinion as a future teacher:

  1. I HATE the entire (if sometimes necessary or required) practice of book permission slips. Why don’t I just send home a piece of paper that reads, “I’m going to teach a book that challenges ideas and conventions. Please sign below if you’re ok with your child reading a novel that will expand their horizons.” It’s like a red flag for Complainer Parents.
  2. I think this would be a great novel to teach to upperclassmen in high school. I think there could be fun, rich book discussions and essay topics and writing prompts. The only issue would obviously be if there were any controversy coming from parents or my school that would prevent me from doing so.
  3. It’s IMPORTANT to read books that are controversial/ have been banned. I mean, hello! If there’s something in a book people don’t want me to read, I WANT TO READ IT. The reason people have been oppressed since the beginning of time is lack of knowledge. The best way to keep control is to manipulate people’s minds and make them think like you do, which is exactly what book-banners want. I want my students to challenge everything they know because it may be the first or only chance they get.

If you’re interested in reading from the people who disagree with my stance on censorship:

http://www.safelibraries.org/pushers.htm

Let me know either in the comments or through email if you’ve read or taught Looking for Alaska in the classroom or if you agree or disagree with my review.

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4 thoughts on “Looking for Alaska by John Green

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