Looking for Alaska is the debut novel by John Green that took the world by storm, and in some places for the wrong reasons. The novel was the 4th most banned book between 2010 to 2019 according to the American Library Association. It was banned and challenged for offensive language, sexually explicit content, and the inclusion of drugs, alcohol consumption, and smoking. Despite its frequent challenging, this novel is important because it is a coming-of-age story whose themes discuss searching for meaning, grief, hope, and relationships, both romantic and platonic.
In Looking for Alaska, Miles "Pudge” Halter is a teenage boy who has an expertise in memorizing the last words of famous people. He leaves his hometown in Florida to attend Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama his junior year. Upon his arrival, his roommate Chip “The Colonel'' Martin introduces Pudge to his friends: Takumi Hikohito, the hip-hop extraordinaire with mad rap skills, and Alaska Young, the smart, defiant, beautiful, and often off-the-wall love interest of Miles.
Alaska learns of Miles’ obsession with last words and tells him Simon Bolivar’s: “How will I ever get out of this Labyrinth” (Green 19). The two agree that if Miles can solve the riddle of the Labyrinth, Alaska will find him a girlfriend. Later, Alaska sets Miles up with Lara, their Romanian classmate. They go on a date that ends in disaster when Miles throws up into Lara’s lap. Despite having feelings for Alaska, Miles continues to date Lara because Alaska claims to be madly in love with her boyfriend Jake.
The group manages to pull off a series of pranks and celebrates with a night of drinking. While celebrating, Alaska confesses that when she was eight her mother died of an aneurysm. She feels guilty for not calling 911. Upon hearing this, Miles concludes that the labyrinth is human suffering and that people must find a way out.
A week later, the group holds another celebration that ends with Miles and Alaska spending the night together. Later that night, Alaska receives a phone call that makes her hysteric and irrational. Miles and Chip set off firecrackers to distract the principal, Mr. Starnes, so that Alaska can leave campus. The next morning, they find out that Alaska was drinking and driving and died behind the wheel. Miles and Chip are devastated and feel guilty for letting her leave, so they take it upon themselves to investigate the reason behind whether her death was intentional or not. They conclude that Alaska died the day after the anniversary of her mom’s death and felt guilty for not visiting her grave. She was in a rush to the cemetery when she died.
As a celebration of Alaska’s life, Miles and Chip team up with the Weekday Warriors, a group of rich kids, to hire a male stripper to speak at Speaker Day, a prank originally planned by Alaska. The prank went so well that even Principle Starnes was impressed. On the last day of school, Takumi confesses in a note that he was the last person to see Alaska before she died. Miles realizes that letting her go doesn’t matter and he forgives her for dying.
Despite Looking for Alaska being a coming of age novel, some people have taken certain scenes out of context and even go as far as to say the novel is pornographic. In the Depew School district in Buffalo, New York, a school offered Looking for Alaska as reading material for a class. Parents wanted it removed from the course because of its sexually explicit content (Winchester). The scene they are talking about is when Miles and Lara have oral intercourse. John Green responds to the banning of Looking for Alaska in a video titled I Am Not A Pornographer on his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers. In the video, Green says:
The point of the novel is to fulfill the purpose of a coming-of-age story which is to highlight the growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. In Looking for Alaska, Miles experiences many firsts. Miles’ sexual encounter in the novel is his first, and he learns that his connection to Lara is more emotional than physical. Miles also experiences his first loss and learns how to cope with grief. He learns to be on his own because this is his first time away from his parents in a foreign place. He is exposed to peer pressure. These are all things that happen to teenagers in the world, not just in fictional novels.
Looking at a single scene out of context and making assumptions about the novel can cause misunderstandings and the story can lose meaning. The purpose of Looking for Alaska was not to be pornographic or explicit, but to highlight the reality of the human experience. People in reality smoke, drink, swear, and have sex. When topics like these are censored in a novel, society loses a realistic voice within fiction. This novel is directed towards young adults and it exposes them to tough topics vicariously rather than directly and the audience can learn from the novel just like the characters do. Looking for Alaska should not be banned because it accurately portrays human existence and the plights of young adulthood.
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. Dutton Books, 2019.
"Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010-2019", American Library Association, September 9, 2020.http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/decade2019/. (Accessed October 21, 2022)
VlogBrothers, “I Am Not a Pornographer.”. YouTube, 30 Jan. 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM&t=72s.
Winchester, Laura E. “Committee Will Review Controversial Teenage Book Board Will Then Decide If Novel Can Be Textbook.” Buffalo News, 23 July 2020, https://buffalonews.com/news/committee-will-review-controversial-teenage-book-board-will-then-decide-if-novel-can-be-textbook/article_9897ea03-14c1-5d06-864a-388a4548d6d0.html.
Book cover from Amazon.com.
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This book review is part of a series of Banned Books Week reviews from Dr. Emilee Howland's Fall 2022 ENGL 460: Banned Books class.
For more information about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, please visit BannedBooks.org.