Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 2, 2011.
Looking For Alaska by John Green
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:**** (4 stars)
Overall:**** (4 stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.
I first heard of YA author John Green via his wildly popular (with good reason) youtube channel Vlogbrothers, in which he discusses brilliant and hilarious subjects with his equally clever brother, Hank. At one point, he mentioned that the protagonist in his first novel, Looking For Alaska, was obsessed with the dying words of famous people, and I realized that I had to read the book as quickly as possible. Last words are morbidly fascinating, frequently funny, and it’s hard to dislike a character who has such a cool obsession. The book is not long and is easy to read; at 221 pages I was able to power through it in an evening. While the writing is beautiful and the dialogue snappy there were moments when I had to tear my eyes away from the page to realize that I’d read something very deep and incredibly moving. I’m not always comfortable with having to think hard about morals and emotions, lacking them myself, but in Looking For Alaska there is enough sarcastic humor to balance out the wisdom. John Green treats teenagers with a respect not always present in books about high school. He has his protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter say,
“When adults say, ‘teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.”
My own fondness for Peter Pan-type manifestos aside, this little speech does a good job of summarizing the plot of the book as well as its message. The story concentrates on Miles, who leaves his dreary public school in Florida to attend Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama, where he meets the title character (and possibly the most compelling character in YA literature for quite a while) Alaska Young. Naturally, Alaska is gorgeous and quirky and smarmy and wise, but it is a mark of Green’s true understanding of teenage-hood that he doesn’t have Miles and Alaska launch into a romantic but doomed relationship. They both have significant others, neither of whom are bad or abusive. For the first half of the book, when we are not reading about Alaska, Miles’ new friends spend a lot of time planning epic pranks, which are entertaining but not gripping enough to make up the entire plot of the novel.
Luckily (or unluckily as the case may be), a disastrously fatal event occurs in the very middle of the book, right after the reader has become accustomed to the easy and fun environment, which seizes control and makes the plot as important as it is. Green calls the first half of the book “Before” and the second half “After,” and at first I looked at the heading of each chapter and demanded “before WHAT?” but it was explained soon enough, and I was rather upset (successfully, I suppose) by the abruptness of how quickly life can change. There are still moments of humor in the second half of the book, but this is where the intelligence of Green’s writing shines through: as Miles and his friends have to deal with tragedy while still attempting to live through high school. On rare occasions I got a little put-off by the extensive introspection and the presence of feelings, but I think a more sociable person would not have problems with this at all.
My only other complaint is that, while the characters are memorable, their development seems a little stunted and hard to explain, although this is probably an inherent problem with writing relatively short books, especially ones like this with a cast of several unique major characters. The portrayal of teenagers is spot on – I know this because I still sometimes think that I am fourteen years old and my reading-brain hasn’t changed much since I was – and it’s easy to forget that Green is in his thirties and has a young son. The characters are stressed but functioning (for the most part) and their occasional shortcomings are completely relatable because, hey, they’re trying to deal with death and understand World Religion at the same time. In this way, the book can be read by anyone who has ever been in high school and appreciated not only for its beauty and humor but also for its honesty.
Looking For Alaska has been challenged a few schools because of its treatment of sexuality and death, but as John Green aptly points out in his vlog “I Am Not A Pornographer,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM) it doesn’t glorify sex in any way; it shows quite accurately how awkward and uncomfortable it is to be a teenager. And, honestly, if someone is in high school and being told not to read the book by their concerned adult superiors, it’s all a bit late anyway. Teenagers know how unpleasant it is to be them, they don’t need to be shielded from their own realities. As Green says in his video on the subject, with enough wisdom to make Confucius weep, “Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers!” The treatment of a student’s death, too, is not offensive but rather completely accurate.
When I was in a high school (similarly, a rather small private school) a student died in a car crash and no one knew what to do. The administration tried to be understanding, but they were sometimes too overly-sensitive and were criticized either for not giving us the day off or, conversely, for assuming that we needed to be treated like children. The students wanted to express their grief but they seemed to be all jumping on one bandwagon to mourn a kid they barely knew. I was confused and everyone was confused and that is what life is like. Looking For Alaska captures this perfectly. Some of the dialogue seems to be lifted directly from the halls of my school and the writing is respectful without pandering to the reader or to the characters. No one is a villain, no one is a hero, everyone is just trying to sort out their lives and no reader should be able to find fault with this. I’ll repeat my earlier point: John Green knows what’s up. He’s got shit down to a science.