“The Printz Award-winning novel that kickstarted John Green’s career and introduced a whole generation of teens to a new era of YA literature is turning 10 this year. Though the text itself remains the same, there are many extras included in this edition. There is an introduction by Green himself, a helpful Q & A section, and, perhaps most interesting for scholars, portions of the original manuscript that didn’t make it into the final book, along with correspondence between Green and his editor. Purists may gasp to hear that the now-iconic “smoking” cover has been redesigned. But take heart; the new jacket, created by Rodrigo Corral, pays homage to the original with a deep black background and a subtle wisp of smoke. Replace worn copies and introduce a whole new crop of teens to this new classic” (School Library Journal, 2015).
Although I have not read this book in about a year, I remember absolutely loving it. In fact, I was so enamored with the themes and messages in it that I decided to write an entire paper defending it against potential censors for my LIS 614 class (for which this entire blog was created). Even though I did not read Looking for Alaska specifically for this class, I thought I would post my review of it here anyways as a “bonus entry.” Fear not; this blog is by no means complete. I’m just adding this entry to share my thoughts on what I believe is one of John Green’s best works of fiction.
Looking for Alaska follows the story of young Miles Halter, a boy who has just chosen to attend a boarding school in Alabama for his junior year of high school. Miles is a bit peculiar; he has very few (if any) friends, and is obsessed with knowing the “famous last words” of historical figures. When he gets to the boarding school, known as Culver Creek Preparatory High School, he meets a cast of colorful characters who quickly become his closest friends. First there is his roommate Chip Martin, known throughout the novel as “The Colonel.” The Colonel then introduces Miles to his friends: Takumi Hikohito, an emcee with a love of hip-hop, and Alaska Young, a mysterious beauty with a troubled past and a unique outlook on life.
Alaska, though troubled, shares Miles’s obsession with famous last words, and opens up an entirely new world for him as they get to know one another throughout the novel. The events in Looking for Alaska ultimately lead up to a single, climactic event, and the novel is organized into two segments focused around that event: a “before” segment and an “after” segment. Though filled with controversial topics (such as sex, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol), the entire novel focuses primarily on both the trials of growing up and what it means to truly live.
Among the many issues that Looking for Alaska tackles is mental health, as the titular character Alaska grapples with what could be considered either depression or bipolar disorder throughout the novel. Though never expressly discussed, it is clear to both Alaska and the other characters around her that she is suffering from some sort of mental illness, something that becomes painfully clear in the second half of the book (as we near the “After” segment). Without giving away the ending, the novel climaxes in one singular, tragic event, leaving all of the characters to attempt to process what has happened. Another big theme in this book, relating to the concept of mental illness and suicide, is the theme of mortality. Miles, the protagonist, begins the novel obsessed with “famous last words,” and seems to focus (as many of Green’s characters do) on the idea of mattering and leaving something worthwhile behind after he leaves the world. These are incredibly deep issues for a young adult book, and could be immensely helpful to a teen struggling with mental illness or the concept of his or her own mortality.
In my opinion, the best quote in the book comes near the end, as Miles is reflecting on his experiences with Alaska: “And then something invisible snapped inside her, and that which had come together commenced to fall apart” (Green, 2005, p. 196). In this scene, Miles and his friends are desperately trying to piece together what happened before the tragic event. Though mental illness is not the focus of this story, the novel does an excellent job describing the way it often ebbs and flows. Throughout the novel, Alaska has moments of both hysteria and clarity, reflecting on the world in the way only someone with an immensely different experience of it can do. The idea of suicide is also mentioned briefly, and though nobody ever comes to a definitive conclusion on the matter, the way the characters work through the concept is both moving and powerful. While some might criticize these subjects as being “too heavy” for teenagers to bear, I believe it’s an excellent resource for someone who may be struggling with these ideas. As John asserts in his “I Am Not a Pornographer” video (which is directed towards censors of Looking for Alaska), teens deserve a lot more credit than adults usually gives them when discussing these topics.
If I were to use this book in either a classroom or library setting, I would absolutely want to use it to talk about issues like sex, mental health, and struggling in school. Though Miles is clearly smart, he sometimes has trouble expressing this in an academic setting, and it’s important for teens to have that type of character to relate to. Alaska, on the other hand, represents an intelligent, unique, and deeply troubled individual who teaches Miles how to open up and live his life to the fullest (teaching him to “seize the day,” so to speak). I can most definitely see why this book is often used in high school classrooms, as it talks about these issues in a way that both respects the intelligence of teens and teaches important lessons (without feeling preachy). One of Green’s greatest skills is writing books that teens can connect to, and weaving subtle lessons into those books that leave teens feeling more like he understands them and less like he’s trying to “teach them something.” Even ten years after it’s publication, it’s easy to see why Looking for Alaska has remained a modern classic; it rightfully propelled John Green into a writing career that I fervently hope he continues to embrace.
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. (2015, January). School Library Journal, 61(1), 62+.
Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska: A novel. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.
Vlogbrothers. (2008). I Am Not a Pornographer. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM