I’ve wanted to read Looking for Alaska, John Green’s first and one of his best-known novels, for many years, so when I saw it was #7 on the ALA’s list of Most Frequently BannedBooks for 2013, I chose to read it this week in honor of Banned Books Week. I absolutely loved this funny novel about serious topics.
Miles has no friends at his public school in Florida, so he begs his parents to let him attend his father’s alma mater, Culver Creek Boarding School, in Alabama. He hopes that he can make the same kind of happy memories of friends, mischief, and pranks that his dad fondly recalls from his days there. Miles loves to read biographies and collects last words, and he wants what poet Francois Rabelais described as “The Great Perhaps,” a life not quite so safe and boring as the one he has led so far.
Miles’ new roommate, Chip (who says to call him The Colonel), immediately christens Miles “Pudge,” an ironic nickname since Miles is so scrawny he can barely keep his shorts up, and pulls him into his group of friends. Those friends include Takumi, an Asian boy who is a hip-hop enthusiast, and Alaska Young. Pudge is immediately attracted to the wild, passionate, unpredictable Alaska, though she has a serious boyfriend away at college. The four friends settle into routines with classes, rotten food in the cafeteria (including the hilariously named Buffritos), and sneaking away to smoke cigarettes. A Romanian girl named Lara joins their group. With them, over the course of his first semester, Pudge has his first cigarette, his first drink of alcohol, his first kiss, and experiences his first school pranks, an age-old tradition and full-time occupation at Culver Creek.
Interested in Pudge’s obsession with last words, Alaska is particularly fascinated with the same one that is Pudge’s favorite: Simon Bolivar saying, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” They puzzle over what he meant, as Pudge becomes interested in his World Religions class and the similar philosophical questions they tackle there. The group of friends, led by The Colonel and Alaska, plans their biggest prank ever, which works beautifully and leads to big celebrations. All of this fun comes to an abrupt end when tragedy strikes unexpectedly at Culver Creek.
In the first half of the novel, the chapters are labeled X Days Before, with the number slowly counting down. This creates a lot of suspense, as readers wonder what Miles is counting down to. Once they find out, the remaining chapters are titled X Days After. So, you know right from page 1 that something big is going to happen, but you don’t know what.
This is a coming-of-age novel, as Miles (aka Pudge) not only tries new things, enjoys his first real friendships, and falls in love but also deals with very serious issues of the type that every person will have to deal with at some point in his or her life. That is the true brilliance of John Green novels, isn’t it? He can have you laughing out loud on one page (and I laughed a LOT) and contemplating life’s most complex and solemn concepts on the next. I listened to this novel on audio and absolutely loved the audio production – narrator Jeff Woodman had those Alabama accents just right, and I was often laughing (and probably looking foolish!) with my earbuds hanging out of my ears!
If you’ve never read a John Green novel, what are you waiting for? He perfectly captures the experience of being a teen, agonizing over everything from homework assignments to the meaning of life and everything in between. His novels are emotionally powerful, thoughtful, and always filled with plenty of laughs. And that’s life, isn’t it? Ups and downs, laughing and crying, uncertainty and experiencing the “Great Perhaps.” I loved every moment of this moving, funny, and contemplative novel and can’t wait to see the movie (currently in pre-production).
221 pages, Speak (in paperback)
Why Has It Been Banned: Looking for Alaska was #7 on the ALA’s list of Most FrequentlyBanned Books in 2013 and is likely to appear on the list again this year or next, as the movie production moves forward (the book has already begun climbing back up the best-seller list). According to the ALA, it has been banned for: “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.” Well, yeah, that pretty much covers it (other than the last item). It does contain all of those things, but I don’t agree it’s unsuitable for teens. I think most older teens have experimented with (or at least wondered about) all of those things – I know I did at that age – and it doesn’t make sense to keep them from reading a book that delves so deeply into the meaning of life and other important issues that teens are also thinking about. Teens should see characters like themselves in books. And let's face it: if a teen isn't drinking or smoking or having sex yet, then reading about it in a novel isn't going to suddenly transform him or her into a delinquent - reading isn't going to change their core values. As I explained in my Banned Books Week intro post, I believe it is perfectly reasonable for parents to decide what their kids are mature enough for (though I think by the age of older teens, even censorship by parents becomes counter-productive) but not OK for others to decide that a book should be kept from an entire community. I have seen teachers’ comments about this book that they loved it and think it would be great for older teens but that their schools would never allow it. That’s a shame because John Green helps teens think about and work through some really important issues.