Looking for Alaska? Don’t Bother.

(…fourth and final in a series on banned books)

I confess a certain weariness after reading almost nothing but controversial Young Adult literature for the past several weeks. But since that’s the category of books most frequently challenged in public schools and libraries and highlighted during the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week, it’s all part of my job.

Number Seven on the list of challenged books for 2012 is “Looking for Alaska” by John Green. Published in 2005, the novel quickly garnered a number of prestigious awards, including the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature, the Booklist Editors’ Choice Award, and the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

“Looking for Alaska” also aroused a ton of controversy.

Why? Mostly for the same reasons the other books on the challenged list are considered controversial. Underage consumption of alcohol. Underage smoking of both cigarettes and marijuana. Abundant profanity. Sexual references and scenes, including one that some critics have labeled hard-core pornography.

Here’s the plot of “Looking for Alaska” in a nutshell. Miles Halter, tired of his boring life in Florida, persuades his parents to send him to boarding school in Alabama so that he can seek what the poet Francois Rabelais called “the Great Perhaps.” At school, Miles makes friends with several of his new classmates, including the beautiful, moody and wild Alaska Young. The friends bond over elaborate pranks, studying for their classes, and rule-breaking. Halfway through the book, a tragedy occurs. Those left behind must try to make sense of their loss.

Recognizing the controversial nature of the novel’s content, many high school teachers who use the book in their classes send notes home to parents giving them the option of allowing their children to read a different book if they think “Alaska” inappropriate. While some parents quietly choose that option, others have campaigned to have the book removed from the schools altogether. In several school systems, including two right here in Tennessee–Sumner and Knox counties–those efforts succeeded.

Which, of course, has helped keep “Looking for Alaska” near the top of the YA bestseller list.

I have mixed feelings about this whole deal. While I firmly believe that no parent has a right to choose what other people’s children read, I also think that educators should be extraordinarily conscientious about which books they include on a required reading list. That’s not to say they should shy away from books that deal with difficult or uncomfortable subject matter. Books shouldn’t be left off the list just because they’re not G-rated.

But if I were teaching high school, I wouldn’t use “Looking for Alaska.” And not because I’m afraid of controversy. I simply don’t think it’s a very good book. Most of the profanity strikes me as gratuitous. The sex scene could have been toned way down and still been effective.  In several places, Green should have followed the late Elmore Leonard’s advice about writing: “Leave out the boring parts.”

Ban “Looking for Alaska”? Not on your life. Like all controversial literature, it deserves a place on the library shelf. But if teachers want to stimulate discussion about peer pressure, socioeconomic disparity, depression, suicide, death and grief, there are far better choices in the vast sea of young adult literature.

(September 29, 2013)


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