This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Looking For Alaska

Green, John. 2005. Looking For Alaska. New York: Dutton Books. ISBN 0525475060.

Looking For Alaska may sound like a geography book or a tale of a wild journey of discovery—well, it is the latter, but not in the way you might think. It is the story of Miles Halter’s academic year spent at Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama, where the only things there are to do is sneak away to smoke, play video games, and terrorize the rich locals. Miles, who his new roommate Chip calls Pudge, has come to the school to have enough of an experience so as to be able to earn a great quote as his last words. Chip has a fixation with doing pranks, each one outdoing the one before it and he now has a new recruit in Pudge, who along with a few other buddies—also including Alaska Young, their knockout booze and cigarette connection—put their minds together to do a prank so big it will go down in the annals of the school’s history. While Alaska is gorgeous, outgoing and great-smelling, she also has a turbulent, tornadic temper. AND she’s taken… by a boyfriend who is far away. This doesn’t stop every guy in the school from falling in love with her, including Pudge. When Alaska gets into a wreck and dies, Miles and Chip spend the rest of the book trying to answer the question no one wants to ask: Did Alaska commit suicide?

What an incredibly wonderful, uplifting, dangerously tragic story. The language is true and real, every scrap of dialogue jumps up off of the page as though the reader is in the room with Pudge, Chip and Alaska. The themes presented—confronting authority, first crushes, self-destructive tendencies in our friends and ourselves—are all ones to which young people of any era have had to face. The characters are funny and smart and masterfully written, each having his or her own distinct and colorful personality and voice. The setting is one to which every young person can relate—a situation of strict guidelines just begging to be challenged—in a physical place that is easy to picture and fun to imagine. The richness of the language, the story and the intense emotion make the reader join Miles and his friends as they spent their time Looking For Alaska.

The following is a representative sample of the language and personality of two of the main characters:

“All right, so my mom was something of a hippie when I was a kid. You know, wore oversized sweaters she knitted herself, smoked a lot of pot, et cetera. And my dad was a real Republican type, and so when I was born, my mom wanted to name me Harmony Springs Young, and my dad wanted to name my Mary Frances Young.” As she talked, she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.

“So instead of naming me Harmony or Mary, they agreed to let me decide. So when I was little, they called me Mary. I mean, they called me sweetie or whatever, but like on school forms and stuff, they wrote Mary Young. And then, on my seventh birthday, my present was that I got to pick my name. Cool, huh? So I spent the whole day looking at my dad’s globe for a really cool name. And so my first choice was Chad, like the country in Africa. But then my dad said that was a boy’s name, so I picked Alaska.”

I wish my parents had let me pick my name. But they went ahead and picked the only name firstborn male Halters have had for a century. “But why Alaska?” I asked her.

She smiled with the right side of her mouth. “Well, later, I found out what it means. It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against,’ and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was big, just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

I laughed. “And now you’re all grown up and fairly far away from home,” I said, smiling. “So congratulations.” She stopped the head bobbing and let go of my (unfortunately sweaty) hand.

“Getting out isn’t that easy,” she said seriously, her eyes on mine like I knew the way out and wouldn’t tell her. And then she seemed to switch conversational horses in midstream. “Like after college, know what I’m going to do? Teach disabled kids. I’m a good teacher, right? Shit, if I can teach you precalc, I can teach anybody. Like maybe kids with autism.”

She talked softly and thoughtfully, like she was telling me a secret, and I leaned in toward her suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that we must kiss, that we ought to kiss right now on the dusty orange couch with its cigarette burns and its decades of collected dust. And I would have: I would have kept leaning toward her until it became necessary to tilt my face so as to miss her ski-slope nose, and I would have felt the shock of her so-soft lips. I would have. But then she snapped out of it.”

“No,” she said, and I couldn’t tell at first whether she was reading my kiss-obsessed mind or responding to herself out loud. She turned away from me, and softly, maybe to herself, said, “Jesus, I’m not going to be one of those people who just sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”

“Huh?” I aked.

“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining the future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”

School Library Journal says, “Green's dialogue is crisp, especially between Miles and Chip. His descriptions and Miles's inner monologues can be philosophically dense, but are well within the comprehension of sensitive teen readers…These placeholders sustain the mood of possibility and foreboding, and the story moves methodically to its ambiguous climax. The language and sexual situations are aptly and realistically drawn, but sophisticated in nature… Like Phineas in John Knowles's A Separate Peace(S & S, 1960), Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Readers will only hope that this is not the last word from this promising new author.”

Awards: 2006 Michael Prinz Award Winner

This book is a great book for opening discussions on many topics, a few of them including the following: the thrill of confronting authority and breaking rules, the strength of adolescent friendship, the solidarity that comes with sharing the same socio-economic status, bipolar personality disorder and teen depression, suicide and loss of friends, and moving on with one’s life after tragedy.

Review by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/25/06.


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