Banned Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for AlaskaLooking for Alaska
John Green
Speak (Puffin Books)
Publish Date:  August 14, 2008
ISBN 978-1-101-43420-8

Smoking cigarettes.  Swearing.  Drinking – lots of drinking.  Sexual activity.  Rule breaking – covertly, openly, and constantly.  On the surface, I can certainly see why the Depew (New York) School Board, the school boards of Knox and Sumner Counties in Tennessee and some conservative organizations banned, challenged and/or advocated against John Green’s Looking for Alaska being taught in high school English classes, and even being available in school libraries (or actually, the YA section of any library).

Of course, they were – and are – completely wrong and incredibly short-sighted in attempting to do so.  All they had to do to allay their fears of leading kids off the straight and narrow path of moral living was to read the book itself.

Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter, an awkward, unpretentious boy who leaves home and public school for a boarding school in Alabama, the same one his father attended.  Miles’ life so far has been uneventful, uninspired, and he hopes that attending Culver Creek Boarding School will allow him to find what the dying French Renaissance scholar François Rabelais deemed the “Great Perhaps.” (Miles has a fascination with famous last words.)

While at Culver Creek he befriends a motley assortment of kids, including his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin (a “scholarship” student from an impoverished background, unlike most of the decidedly privileged students at the school), Takumi, a boy of Japanese descent who likes to rap and is not a computer whiz, and Alaska Young, a wild child, who is smart, irreverent, and serious about pranking and her boyfriend.  Alaska is a girl who is strikingly beautiful but emotionally unstable.

But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

Miles is smitten.

What transpires through Miles’ first year at Culver Creek is hilarious, alarming, amazing, touching, enlightening and heart-breaking, as it should be when one is 16 and just starting to understand the uniqueness of life’s journey.  Mistakes are made, decisions – both wise and unwise – bring pain (emotionally and literally), exhilaration, discovery and fear.  For Miles and his friends, though, there is also tragedy that will change their lives forever with the experience of loss, grief and lessons on how to survive it all.

Yes, these kids are not what pundits would consider superior role models, on the surface.  But they are real, or really feel that way.  And beyond the swearing, the pranks and the gosh-awful strawberry wine with the screw off caps, they are loyal, caring and, in their own very recognizable way, virtuous.  They learn from the lessons that come their way, both inside the classroom and outside of it.  They learn on their own, in their own way.  And some of those lessons are heartbreaking to watch; but then, at times, so is “real” life.

I found it very surprising that one of the biggest charges thrown at Looking for Alaska was that it was “pornographic”.  Yes, the kids talk about sex and either are (assuming) sexually active or wish they were; anyone who doesn’t believe sex is pervasive in our teenagers’ minds certainly doesn’t remember what it was like to be a teenager.   Yet for all the hullaballoo, Looking for Alaska is not at all about sex (other than sex being one of the minefields that our kids have to navigate).  There is only one scene in the book that could even remotely be deemed sexual (depending on your definition of “sex”), and the purpose of it has virtually nothing to do with physical gratification, yet it is often lifted out of context and held up as evidence of this book’s unworthiness of being in high school curricula or in libraries where youngsters can have access to it.

Author John Green (award winning writer and, with his brother Hank, ground breaking video blogger, whose fans, the Nerdfighters, and their DFTBA – “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome” – battle cry will renew your faith in youth, just in case you had any doubts) gets upset when confronted by those detractors who misread (by not reading) Looking for Alaska.  In a January 2008 You Tube “Vlogbrothers” episode entitled “I Am Not a Pornographer“, he responds to the challenge at Depew High School:

There is one very frank sex scene.  It is awkward, un-fun, disastrous and wholly un-erotic.  Hank, the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it when there’s not a serious physical interaction, but there’s this intense emotional connection.  The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails.

Hank, it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.

Now Hank, some people are gonna say that kids don’t have the critical sophistication when they’re reading to understand that.  And I have a message for those people:  shut up and stop condescending to teenagers!

I asked my daughter – who has read every single John Green book ever written to date, despite reading being difficult for her – if she felt at all compelled to be like the kids in the book when she read it at age 14, and all she did was give me “the look”.  Later she told me that she can identify with a story, or even characters in a story, without needing to be those characters.  That goes for her friends, too.  And in fact, she told me, Looking for Alaska did more to warn her off risky behavior than entice her into following their example.

Sounds to me that John Green was right.  We need to shut up and stop condescending to teenagers when it comes to making assumptions about we think they should and can read.  Thankfully, that was the decision of the Depew School Board, when they voted unanimously to reject the challenge and allow Looking for Alaska to be taught in the 11th grade English class there.

John Green – 1, banned books – 0.