Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Great Perhaps: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green
Puffin, 2005

With NaNoWriMo and my writing goals taking up much of my free time, my pleasure reading has been bumped down the to-do list for the time being. However, since one of the most common pieces of advice among writers is to read read read. I was able to heed this advice yesterday as I took the train to Chicago, and in honor of my destination I decided to re-read Looking for Alaska by John Green who wrote the novel when he lived in the city of big shoulders while also working at Booklist Magazine.

A new student at a boarding school, Miles has come to Culver Creek from Florida seeking "a great perhaps." A junior in high school, he has a knack for learning the last words of people and though he isn't exactly sure of what he's looking for, he knows he won't find it unless he makes a change. And so it's goodbye Florida, hello Alabama. From the very first day, his life is full of mischief and adventures thanks to his new friends: The Colonel, Takumi, and the ever mysterious Alaska Young, the girl who manages to both irritate Miles and steal his heart.

Alaska is a force to be reckoned with and for the first time in his life, Miles is thinking outside of his usual box and willing to live outside the standard set of rules. The novel is cryptically divided into two sections. Rather than chapters, the "Before" section is counting down to an event ("One hundred days before"). Eventually readers find out what the event is and from then on, segments in the "After" portion count the days since.

I first heard about John Green while an undergraduate working on my minor in secondary education. One of the Vlogbrothers, John and his brother Hank make regular YouTube videos talking about a wide variety of issues. I saw my first one in an education class in which we were discussing book challenges, and Looking for Alaska was a current example. Accused of being a pornographer by citizens who were uncomfortable with the book being part of the curriculum, in his four minute video, Green eloquently states his case in a fashion that is reminiscent of the novel being discussed. I was hooked, and I had to read the book that had started this all.

One of the major strengths of Green's debut novel is that Green raises the bar for his readers and expects them to reach it. He respects them. He crafts a story that is serious, funny, realistic, and with a strong and relatable voice. He knows that young adults are capable of thinking about more than just gossip and sex and while both of those feature into the novel (it is YA, after all), they do not dominate the story. Through Miles' eyes, readers are challenged to look at the parts of life that aren't so easy on the eyes. Questions are posed that are not capable of simple answers, no matter how old or smart you are. It's no wonder to me that this book was the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award winner for excellence in young adult literature.

I was actually sad when my train pulled into Union Station in the morning, and then back into my home station in the evening when my city business was over because I so enjoyed becoming reacquainted with this story. To anyone who says that young adult literature doesn't count as "real literature," this should be the book you hand over to change that person's mind.

Comments are welcomed and as always, happy reading.

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