I stupidly stopped reading YA books when I was in middle school, when a teacher told me I was too smart for it, but then a professor in grad school put Looking for Alaska
on the syllabus for a course in children's literature. I read the book in one day, as I rode the train to the city and back for an interview for an internship I didn't get. It was near the end of the fall semester, so it was cold as I sat on a bench just off Independence Mall waiting for it to be time for my interview, but I was so engrossed with this book that I didn't care. Since then, I've read everything John Green has written and now I want to read them all again in anticipation of his new book...next week. I can hardly wait. I haven't been so excited for a book release in years.
I wish I had read this book when I was in high school. I mean, it wasn't published until I was most of the way through college, but I still wish I'd had the opportunity to read it when I was sixteen. I always wanted to live in a world from a John Green novel, where everyone is quirky and independent and it's ultimately okay to be just a little fucked up. In fact, it's kind of mandatory: everyone's just a little fucked up. That's a lesson sixteen-year-old me would have benefited from.
Miles Halter is a nerdy kid from Florida who has no friends before enrolling in an Alabama boarding school. He's still a nerdy kid when he gets to Culver Creek, but he's accepted into a group of other nerdy kids: Chip "The Colonel" Martin, Takumi, and Alaska Young - the beautiful, mysterious girl integral to many a John Green story. She's great at devising elaborate pranks and getting her hands on cigarettes and alcohol. She's got a boyfriend and a vaguely haunted past, and Miles is crazy about her mostly because he can't know her.
I've read a lot of reasons why people dislike this book: the excessive quirkiness of the characters, Alaska's moody selfishness, the teenage utopia of a boarding school where kids can smoke and drink and learn to give blow jobs without the presence of parents. So there's an element of idealism in this book -- in all of John Green's books? That's what I think a lot of teens are looking for. It's what I was looking for, anyway.
The novel is broken up into Before and After, days counting down to and away from the climactic event. Miles is a kid coming into his own identity, and the events of the novel force him to ask himself new questions that he's never had to think about before. Green gets inside Miles' head in a way that is honest and insightful and completely relatable. Even though I'd read the book before, I again found myself tearing up as I churned through Miles' attempts to understand the bigger picture, because I could so identify with many of the questions he was asking. They were questions I was asking myself when I was a teenager dealing with issues eerily similar to Alaska's. I'd put some quotations in here, but I can't do it without being super-spoilery so I won't.
Alaska is one of the first book characters I could genuinely and wholeheartedly relate to, and I didn't find her until I was 25, but I still want to thank John Green for creating her and reminding us that even though she was an enigma for Miles, she's still beautifully human.
Also, Green's knack for describing the inane details that make a person unique is quite remarkable. I love it. Upon meeting Chip for the first time:
He told me this while ripping though his duffel bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a T-shirt drawer. He believed that all drawers were created equal and filled each with whatever fit. My mother would have died."