Looking For Alaska by John Green

I saw Looking for Alaska at the library and grabbed it because it's by the same author as An Abundance of Katherines, a book I picked for the Printz challenge. And because this book also won the 2006 Printz award. And because I loved Green's videoblog with his brother, and am so sad it's over, although they do still videoblog now and then in their own blogs. Here's a videoletter to his brother that Green made when Looking for Alaska was being challenged. It is the best censorship rant ever.

But back to the book.

It's really an outstanding book. I usually feel that the highest praise I can mentally (or in a blogpost) give a YA book is that it will make kids think. But then I read this book, which made me, an allegedly sophisticated adult reader with an actual literature degree, think.

It made me think about death, and what happens after we die (my answer = I don't know and neither does anyone else). And it made me think about the ways in which emotional pain can be as deadly as physical pain. It made me think about my friend who studies religion and has expressed some of the same ideas as Green (who also studied religion). It also made me think about belonging, and what it meant to me as a kid, and what it means to kids I know. It made me think about what, exactly, home is.

The narrator is Miles, a high school junior, who goes away to boarding school. There, he meets a group of friends, the first group of friends he's had in his life. In his old school he was an outcast, but the sense of belonging he feels at this new school triggers a lot of growth in him. This reminded me of a boy I know, who was an outcast in his previous school, but is now thriving, with a group he belongs to, in a different school.

Miles' group of friends is what many parents would consider "the wrong crowd."

But for Miles, it's the right crowd, because although they introduce him to "booze and mischief" as well as smoking and sex, all of which contribute to the constant threat of expulsion dangling over their heads, they understand him. They look at him, and they see Miles, who he really is, and they accept him. This matters so much more to kids, I think, than whether the people who include them are "good kids" or "bad kids."

And really, let's be perfectly honest here. There is no way to protect your kid from kids who know about alcohol, mischief, sex and smoking. The only real control you have over how they react to this inevitable exposure is to teach your kids to think for themselves. That is really the only protection parents can give their children from whatever they consider the evils of the world, although a sad number of parents believe that fearmongering, threats, and lots of screaming and bullying will somehow have a positive effect.

The sun around which the rest of the group revolves is Alaska, a girl with so much charisma that everyone seems to be at least a little bit in love with her. Alaska is impulsive and reckless, as well as troubled, and she barely shares the source of those troubles with her closest friends. In the end, knowing Alaska is the greatest source of pain Miles has encountered in his life, but it's also a catalyst for his personal growth, for him to start forming his own values and viewpoints and interests, beyond the interest he arrived at the school with, which is the last words of famous people.

I really can not recommend this book strongly enough. I can't wait to read An Abundance of Katherines now, and I think I've found a new favorite writer.

Now, in case you fell madly in love with Green's brain watching that video (and who wouldn't?) you can get more at his blog.

And below is an (admittedly dated) example of the awesomeness of Hank Green, John's brother.

"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame." Oscar Wilde