Friday, March 14, 2014

Reading: Looking for Alaska

For the past couple of years, I have heard many things about acclaimed young adult author John Green but consciously refrained from reading his books.  Well, I just read Looking for Alaska, as it was assigned to me, and it served as a gentle reminder that sometimes jumping on the bandwagon is a good thing and that, sometimes, there's a reason the bandwagon exists in the first place.  When it comes to Looking for Alaska, the reason is simple: It's good.  Of course, there are many other reasons why this novel has been in print by Speak Publishing since 2005, and I am going to share the reasons why this book has been added to my list of favorite reads.  

Miles Halter has just moved to Alabama to attend Culver Creek Boarding School, where he hopes to stumble into the Great Perhaps.  He is obsessed with famous last words and quickly makes a good group of friends at the Creek, particularly his roommate, Colonel, and Alaska, a mysterious beauty that he, like everybody else, falls in love with.  Throughout the book, he and his friends engage in bouts of reckless behavior, thought-provoking conversations, school pranks, study sessions over plates of soggy french fries, and questions of mortality.  

After reading about Miles and his friends, I feel changed in a way - in a good way, or at least I feel like I have a few new friends that I would like to keep up. with  The friendship between the characters is magnetic; while they may not always get along perfectly, they always stand up for one another and show that they genuinely care.  For example, although his mother is poor, the Colonel invites Alaska and Miles to his humble home for Thanksgiving dinner, and when Miles get in trouble and has to go in front of the student jury, Alaska and the Colonel take the blame for him, as they feel that he has more to lose than they do.   Their dialogue sounds familiar, like something you would overhear in any group of friends, though perhaps a bit more intellectually stimulating with the Colonel or Alaska leading the conversations.  While my friends and I were never reckless like the characters in this book (seriously, I think the most rebellious thing we ever did in high school was decorate lockers for birthday parties, which isn't really rebellious and actually quite festive), I felt that I could connect with these friends as they found comfort in each other's company.  Even sitting beside the Colonel on the old couch after tragedy strikes is a comfort to Miles; no words need to be exchanged.  

But when words are exchanged in this novel, boy, are they exchanged!  I enjoyed reading a young adult novel with stimulating vocabulary featuring kids who value knowledge.  Not all of the characters are represented as super-genuines, and I surely could relate to Miles who worked really hard to get that C+ in pre-calculus.  But in an age when individuals are often glued to their technological devices at the dinner table, it is refreshing to read a book in which the characters have real conversations and practical debates among themselves.  The end of the book made me hopeful, and the idea that forgiveness is the way out of the labyrinth is suffering is so thought-provoking; when I read it, I was deeply affected and had to pause to think about how forgiveness could have changed Alaska and did, eventually, change the Colonel and Miles - or at least grant them acceptance.  I don't want to go into too much detail so as to not to spoil the book, but I did feel that this thought, and so many others in the novel, are quite profound.  

Although it is a well-written novel with a diverse cast of characters, Looking for Alaska appears on many banned-book lists.  In a recent article that I read by John Green, he explains that he is not trying to corrupt any of his young readers.  On the contrary, I think he provides relatable, stimulating material for them to read.  The content of his books is familiar to many teens, and the message between the lines is so powerful that I would hate for kids to miss out on it!  Of course, parents are entitled to monitor what entertainment their students consume, and as an elementary teacher, I can't help but wish more families would monitor the time children spend playing videos, as well as the type of games that they play.  But I think that it is important to highlight the lessons that can learned from a book such as Looking for Alaska.   If a parent doesn't wish for his/her child to read the book, I think it's important to emphasize that individuals who do want to read the book are not "bad people," nor are they themselves corrupt.  

There are so many more words that I could write about this novel that I read it in the gym, while waiting at the DMV (which just so happened to have the shortest lines ever that day; I was so disappointed), and in the lobby of the William and Mary education building before class started.  (I may have left home intentionally early just to get a few more pages in.)  For the sake of not spoiling anything, I'll instead share a few last words:  After reading Looking for Alaska, I think I am a better person.  I can't ask for anything more from a book. 

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