John Green’s Looking for Alaska is a gateway drug. It’s no wonder that SafeLibraries.org fears that it will change the way teenagers think. However it’s not the 281 occurrences of swearing, the three frankly awkward sexual scenes portraying the differences between physicality and emotional connections, or the teen drinking and smoking that they should fear.
No the real fear for John Green’s debut novel is that it is a filter through which teens can examine their lives- who they are, what they stand for, and how they relate to this universe in all its vastness. It shows them how to look at their actions and see the meaning behind them- how one proverbial ripple can cause a tsunami in someone else’s life. It is a book about consequences and coping, about possibilities, and that change is not a solitary event- it is the demarcation line in an ongoing progression of life.
The story of Looking for Alaska is deceptive. From the outset it appears to be about Miles “Pudge” Halter, a non-descript teenage boy who chooses to go to Culver Creek boarding school in his junior year. His obsession with biographies and last words has set him on a life’s quest to discover his “Great Perhaps”- a world in which there are infinite possibilities for greatness. What he finds is a school somewhere crossed between John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (incidentally they’re both banned books as well). There’s a code of honor, mischief, extreme nerdiness and a deep seated loyalty even to the dreaded rich kid “Weekday Warriors.” Pranks are king, paybacks are hell, and ratting isn’t tolerated. Pudge, the skinniest white boy around, becomes an integral part of a tight-knit group of friends- his roommate the wildly tenacious Colonel, Takumi the “mother !%$#@!^ fox”, Romanian Lara who teaches Pudge how to kiss and gives him his first physical experience with a girl, and finally there is Alaska.
Alaska Young is Pudge’s Great Perhaps. His life, and the book, is divided into the demarcation line between her before and his after. She is vivacious and witty, flirty and petulant, moody and hysterical, curvy and ridiculous. She lives in the realm of excess- she smokes, drinks, and freaks out to the extreme. Everything is at the highest level of drama and done to the nth degree of contradiction, from the way she loves her boyfriend to how she cheats on him. Her melodrama and mood swings are monumental in scope and yet the impulsive way that she takes life by the balls makes her the center of her friends’ orbits. It is as inevitable for Pudge to love her as it is for him to hate her for it too. While she rants about subverting the patriarchal paradigms and the objectification of women, she plays and flirts with the feelings of all the boys around her. She draws Pudge in while simultaneously pushing him away; further begetting the mystery and enigma that is the before and after of Alaska.
Alaska acts as a whirlwind in Pudge’s life- she shakes up and changes everything he knows, and then is “POOF! Gone,” and dealing with that is the heart of the book. It’s not the controversial side-events of a teen’s life (smoking, drinking, cursing, having “sexual relations”) that define a person or this book. It is the lesson of the mercurial nature of life (as evidenced by Alaska) and that change is an active verb not a static noun. High school is a time of life in which everything is in flux, your body, your moods, your relationships and your future all while you’re trapped in the “labyrinth of suffering,”(which is arguably Alaska’s Great Perhaps). We misinterpret what change means- it is not “The Change”- that one-off event in life from which nothing will ever be the same. To live is to change- it is life’s greatest constant that each moment something will be slightly different, and it is only at life’s end that it ceases and we become static. Alaska the most vibrantly alive person Pudge had ever known raced straight and fast through the labyrinth, desperately trying to outrun a change that started when she was eight years old. Instead she became trapped in the now, never looking backward or forward, never thinking to swerve and leaving everything “to be continued.”
Last year I found Looking for Alaska sitting on the end of a bookshelf under a sign reading “Must Reads for All Ages” at my local bookstore. I was 23 and my life was simultaneously rapidly shifting and standing still, and reading this book got me through that. Fearing change is fearing life, and life is the greatest of the “Great Perhaps’.” This novel helped me to move through the labyrinth of suffering at my own pace, forgiving myself and others for not knowing the unknowable, and living each day loving my crooked neighbor with all my crooked heart.
For that reason I can understand why people want to ban this book. If it can become an integral part of someone who is 23, what could it do to an impressionable 17 year old? What if it helped them get through their lives and know that they must keep moving? What if it gave them hope? What if it taught them at the deepest of their despair that life is worth living? What if it taught them that no one has all the answers and sometimes there is none? What would adults do with self-aware teenagers?
They would fear them. As they fear this book and the change it can bring in the hearts of those they seek to keep it from. They want them as trapped in the mire of the labyrinth as they are.
Comment below on the books that changed your life for a chance to win our banned books pack which includes all the books reviewed this week as well as Speak and Twenty Boy Summer. If you tweet about this review to @realjohngreen and include your twitter account we’ll count it as a double entry.