Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking for Alaska, once again

My students are reading John Green's Looking for Alaska this week. In anticipation of class on Tuesday, I just turned the last page a few hours ago. Even though it's my third reading of the book, I can feel myself trying to get my bearings as a reader and a teacher as I search for words to explain what the story means to me. It's a dance I'm doing between public and private now, and it's a shift in my YA work.

I originally went in search of Looking for Alaska at the bookstore because in the summer of 2005, a librarian on the YALSA-BK listserv said something about how refreshing it was to read a book about smart kids, and how she wished there had been books like this when she was a teen. Then I heard that there was some controversy about the content of the book, and of course that was another great motivator for me to read it.

What I discovered when I read Alaska was a group of boarding school kids who were smart as well as subversive. That alone would have been enough to win me over, but the before-and-after structure of the novel suggested that something monumental was going to happen in their lives. In another thematic layer, much of the set-up of the story comes in the form of quotes from literature, world religions, and famous last words of the dying. In fact, famous last words begin the story. Having read the last words of the poet Rabelais, main character Miles Halter goes off to boarding school at Culver Creek to find his "Great Perhaps." But it's Alaska--the moody and seductive girl who reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez and who befriends Miles--whose questions about the labyrinth of suffering provide the crux of the story.

Because of these layers, a book about friendship and booze and smoking and mischief becomes a book that poses existential questions about living, dying, and suffering. Looking for Alaska won the Printz award in 2006 for exceptional literary merit, and when I try to sort out why, I keep coming back to this notion of layers. Alaska is a boarding school story. It's a story about the brilliance of a well-timed prank, and it's a story about first love. But it's also a story of teens trying to use their intellect--all their reading and writing and thinking and talking and being--to make sense of unanswerable questions. To quote Alaska herself, "How do we get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" I'm still thinking about her question at the end of yet another reading of this book.

I assigned Looking for Alaska to my students because I wanted to see how the book's questions would resonate with an audience beyond myself. I wanted to see if newcomers to YA could see the book's ambition, and by extension, some of the ambition in the field of YA more broadly. In an interview I conducted with John Green last fall, he talked about how reading books is a way of entering into an ancient conversation, and how writing for teens is a way of making sure he has a seat at the table with them. I want to remember that as I go out into the world with this book, trying to explain for myself and others what it means and why it matters, as I too take a seat at the table.


  1. I loaned this book to a student last year and she couldn't give it back to me. She read, and re-read, and thought, and wrote, and got her friends to read it. When she finally returned it just before school let out, she told me it was only because she'd bought her own copy. I suspect she found friends and ways of thinking in the book that she hadn't suspected existed before she read it. That's my favorite kind of book. (I loved reading it, too.) -Kris G.

  2. Oh - and why did I read it? Because YOU recommended it! :D