John Green’s “Looking for Alaska“ (Dutton Books 2005) is among the 22 books so far this school year that a trio of individuals have sought to ban from high school library shelves. A committee of Matanzas high school faculty members and parent representatives meets on March 30 at 3 p.m. at Matanzas High School to discuss “Looking for Alaska” and decide whether to retain it or ban it. The meeting is open to the public but not to public participation.
The book is not part of the curriculum. It is only available at the Matanzas High School library, accessible as a self-selection to students who choose to read it. Parents can easily keep their own children from accessing the book. The book-banners, however, wish to take the right of other parents and students away by eliminating the book altogether. The following review by FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam is presented as a guide.
Halfway through Looking For Alaska, Pudge and Lara, two of the high schoolers in the Alabama boarding school where John Green’s tragicomic first novel takes place, are making out to the background blur of “The Brady Bunch” until Lara thinks it’d be fun to third-base Pudge. Neither has ever gone that far. Neither knows what to do.
What follows, including the Alaska of the title bailing them out with a demonstration involving a tube of toothpaste, is one of the funniest descriptions you’ll read of the stumbling genesis behind what Philip Roth called “a generation of astonishing fellators.” There’s nothing titillating about it, except to those who find humor a turn-on (I am among them: Voltaire has been my Playboy since I was 17). But I suspect it’s that sort of scene that landed Looking for Alaska on the book-burners’ list, and only because the characters plainly say and do the sort of things that leave burners fuming with repressed jealousy: Just as there’s a sexually-frustrated zealot behind every suicide bomber, there’s a sexually-frustrated boor behind every book-burner.
Looking for Alaska has been among the most banned books since its publication in 2005, not just because of the occasional reference to the word “job” in its most delectable applications but because the kids also smoke, drink and do drugs, if you can still calls smoking pot doing drugs (as opposed to, say, evading cancer or carcinogenic parents). Never mind that it’s a morality tale with the atomic weight of some of the sterner passages of the Old Testament. But burners aren’t interested in literary form or purpose. It’s more pavlovian. A single word, a single act sets them off.
Context is nothing to them. They see it as their enemies’ Trojan horse–assuming they know I’m referring to Ulysses’ gambit rather than the dispenser at the Circle K bathroom–a sort of reverse porn mag: to them, readers slog through reams and reams of nothing to get to those erogenous zones. Frankly, there’s not a student past fifth grade with a cell phone in one hand and 97 degrees in the other who doesn’t know quicker and cheaper ways to happy (cf. “job” above).
Context is everything in Looking for Alaska: the boarding school in what seems to be a suburb of Birmingham, the demands of solidarity, the delights of deep, emerging friendships, and then those shocks of life’s (or death’s) intrusion on the undependable everyday that can unravel the fragility of adolescents.
Never mind the book’s artful tribute to adolescent friendship, its testament to loyalty and loss, its crimson-tide humor (“You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamans as a people are unduly afraid of deep fryers”), its exploration of the disemboweling power of grief and guilt, or its reckoning with death and responsibility–with the fatality of drinking and driving, and the equally inescapable fatality of letting a friend drive drunk.
Those aren’t lessons only for adolescents. A person of any age who reads this book would be moved enough to think twice next time the tinkling of car keys is muffled by blood-alcohol levels. Looking for Alaska happens to be targeted at high school readers, even though their recklessness is nowhere near that of your average legislator or school board member (significantly more adults between 21 and 54 are involved in fatal crashes than drivers 16 top 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
There’s no way to prove this, but it is all but certain that the book has saved lives, maybe many lives, because some of the adolescents who have read it in the past 18 years did think twice, or thought enough to take the step not taken in this novel, and unknowingly to save a life–their own or that of a friend. Maybe an entire carload of friends. We’ll never know. But we know. It’s books like this, written with a power of persuasion that goes to the heart more than to the mind–it owes as much to Greek tragedies as to the modern novel–that make a difference in young people’s lives. Ban a book like this, and you are abetting drunk driving’s toll of about 10,000 deaths a year (down from 13,600 when the book was published).
But wait: forget the tragic. Forget the life-saving. Forget Green’s art. To the burners, the entire book is reduced to its few red-lighted passages.
This is the story of five friends (four, really: Lara is more of an occasional day job), and especially that of Miles “Pudge” Halter. The book is written in his first-person voice. His Robert Frost-quoting roommate Chip, who calls his girlfriend a “bitch” all the time, demands to be called “The Colonel” for some reason (no relation to Elvis’s equally demanding Colonel who never served a day in any military). “He believed that all drawers were created equal and filled each with whatever fit.”
Alaska Young is “the hottest girl in all of human history” and the Colonel’s best friend who immediately catches Pudge’s eye and ears. She is as luscious in a peach tank-top as she is magnetic in her immense collection of books: “Her library filled her bookshelves and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls.” One book stands out: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General In His Labyrinth. It’s also Alaska’s labyrinth, and soon to be Pudge’s. He is taken in, and he can’t get out. She finds him attractive, she flirts, the tension between them keeps the book from sagging in parts, but she has a boyfriend and she’s ostensibly faithful.
She’s also got a backstory, as each of these characters does. They have a “Breakfast Club” sort of circle-confessional one night, the author’s device to fill in gaps, explain motivations or neuroses. Pudge is really the least interesting of them, not least because he is Floridian, the state where intellect goes to die. He has two loving, boring parents, no dramas, no traumas. He’s bookish. He lives to discover the famous last words of famous people. He decides to leave Florida “to seek a Great Perhaps,” as goes the only line he knows of Rabelais (father of French literature, his Gargantua and Pantagruel banned for so many centuries once dour Calvin got a hold of his humor). Boarding school is his great perhaps, he thinks. Until he meets Alaska.
The Colonel is the poor kid whose single-mother raised him in a trailer after his cheating father slugged her and walked out, never to show his face again. The Colonel is the ringleader, the mastermind, with Alaska, of elaborate pranks that also help along the novel’s haphazard plotting and the characters’ unraveling, though with decreasing realism. For some reason the Hulu miniseries version of the book decided to Hamilton the Colonel, making him Black, as he is not in the book.
Takumi is the the Japanese-born friend, a bit extraneous and poorly realized as a character. Alaska watched her mother die of aneurysm when she was 8 years old, unaware what to do. Her father blamed her for his wife’s death. She’s never recovered. For all her ebullience, she’s surrounded by a faint, self-inflicted pall as she tries to make it out of her labyrinth. “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die,” she tells Pudge, who unknowingly piles on more premonitions (he reads Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and when he tells Alaska that she shouldn’t drink so much, she tells him, as if we hadn’t figured it out by now, “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person.”
“Is the labyrinth living or dying?” she had asked him of general in the book. “Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” Little by little, Pudge discovers that it’s the question driving Alaska’s own life. He hops on, trying to discover himself through his quest for her.
A few days ago in a review of Zach Barff’s new film, Brandon Yu described the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as “a hollow tool, conjured by purportedly sensitive male indie fantasies, to help the protagonist on his journey toward self-actualization.” If there is a fundamental weakness in Looking for Alaska, it’s that: Alaska fits the trope too much. It’s unfair to her, but it’s not her fault. The book also risks dragging on a bit too long after its dramatic culmination, though its deconstruction of grief, when not too solipsistic, keeps you reading.
I too grieved by book’s end, and would grieve a lot more if Looking or Alaska were to be victimized again by burners who, as always, miss the forest for the fucks.
The following questions in bold are reproduced here exactly as they appear on the Flagler County school district’s school-based Review Questionnaire for media advisory committees taking up book challenges–or attempts to ban books–at the school level. Committees fill in their answers as they reach a decision on each challenged book, after a lengthy committee discussion. The answers below are provided as an amendment to the preceding review, in the more focused context of the district’s question, and are of course only the reviewer’s own–in this case, FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam. Committees may reach vastly different conclusions. Those will be appended below, once they are issued.
Title: Looking for Alaska
Author or editor: John Green
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile, 2005
Basis of objection: “Materials contain pornography, Materials are not appropriate for the age of student.” “This book has sexually explicit excerpts involving minors. This book also contains sexual assault, teenage pregnancy, underage drinking and illegal drug use and profanity.”
1. What is the purpose, theme or message of the material?
Adolescence is a labyrinth of growing freedoms, joys, risks and perils that require a growing capacity for good judgment, but good judgment don’t always keep up with the adolescent mind. The consequences can be overwhelming.
2. Does the material support and/or enrich the curriculum?
Yes, from health class to English lit.
3. Does the material stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and/or ethical values?
The protagonist’s immersion in literature, his obsession with the famous last words of famous people, lend the book an interesting (if more trivial than essential) overlay. It is stronger in terms of the rest: the book fosters literary appreciation as a well-written novel, but also as a novel about novels in many ways, reflecting the excitement of two of its main characters for literature even more than for sex. The book also succeeds in conveying appreciation for both aesthetic and ethical values: there’s no greater art than great literature, its characters seem to think, and ethical questions, some of them unresolved–it is an exploration of death and the hereafter–are at the heart of the novel.
4. Does the material enable students to make intelligent judgments in their daily lives?
Yes. The novel is about the consequences of making catastrophic judgments, how to look past them, how to prevent them.
5. Does the title offer an opportunity to understand more of the human condition?
Yes. It goes to the heart of some essential mysteries of the human condition, life, death, friendship among them.
6. Does the material offer an opportunity to better understand an appreciate the aspirations, achievements and history of diverse groups of people?
Yes, to the extent that the diversity this book is concerned with is not the contemporary variety–it’s not about race or ethnicity, but more about class, something we don’t tread much about these days. Some of the students at the boarding school are rich. Some are not. The divisions are evident, and drive some of the motivations of the main characters’ desire to prank or retaliate for pranks.
1. Is the content timely and/or relevant?
Yes. Drinking and driving, class warfare, the labyrinth of adolescent psychology: those are timeless themes.
2. Is the subject matter of importance to the students served?
Yes, for the same reasons addressed in the previous question.
3. Is the writing of high quality?
It’s of high, but not stellar, quality. It can get hyperbolic, it’s certainly no prose gem, but it’s not Dreiser-clunky, either. The clunkiness is more plot-related.
4. Does the material have readability and popular appeal?
Yes. It can easily be read by a fifth grader who’s not spent life until then attached to a screen.
5. Does the material come from a reputable publisher/producer?
Yes. Dutton is among the major publishers in the country.
6. If presented as factual, is the content accurate?
The question is not applicable.
7. If the text is informational, is the text comprehensive?
The question is not necessarily applicable.
1. Does the material take in consideration the students’ varied interests, abilities and/or maturity levels?
Yes. None of the themes, characters or plot twists will seem unfamiliar to a local reader. This is quintessential adolescent literature about quintessentially American, at times universal, themes.
2. Does the material help provide any of the following:
- A resource that represents a level of difficulty accessible to readers at the school?
- Diversity of appeal?
- Representation of diverse points of view?
Yes to the first two, and a qualified yes to the third, in that the points of view are not exactly varied here, beyond psychological differences.
3. Does the material help to provide representation for various religious, ethnic, and/or cultural groups and the contribution of these groups to American heritage?
Other than Takumi, the Japanese-American, we don’t know who’s white, who’s not, if anyone even is or not. The novel is blessedly unconcerned: we don’t lack for race-conscious novels. The novel’s focus is elsewhere, and on themes that transcend race, ethnicity, even religion, though a classroom scene provides a brief, astute lesson in some of the world’s major religions.
4. Does this material provide representation to students based on race, color, religion, sex, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, or genetic information?
No. See the previous answer.
5. In a Yes or No answer only, do you feel the material has a purpose for a school library collection?
Comments specific to the objection: The objection is moronic. There are a few passages of furtive adolescent hints and dreams of desire, there’s that fabulous scene discussed in the opening of the review, which is more comedy than anything objectionable, but to make the leap to porn, as some of our book-burners seem too horny for at the drop of a lick, speaks more to the derangement of those filing challenges than to the book’s content.
Additional comments: The book likely would have a far more arresting influence on adolescent minds than those staged installations of crashed cars at the entrance of schools, designed to frighten students away from drinking and driving. Don’t frighten them. Educate them, on their own terms. As Looking for Alaska does.
Recommendation (retain, remove, other): Retain in middle and high school.