Like The Fault in Our Stars, which is one of my favourite books so far this year, Looking for Alaska is a book I read because of my son’s current obsession with John Green. I didn’t find Looking for Alaska (Green’s first novel) nearly as compelling as Stars, but it was well-written and engaging. I’ve tagged this review as “Children’s” because I haven’t yet got around to creating a tag for “Young Adult,” but I would definitely recommend this book for mid-teens rather than pre- or young teens. The characters are 15 or 16, and the issues they face definitely have “mature themes.” If I’d read the book first, I probably would have wished Chris to wait a year or two before reading it, but as I didn’t, I’m glad I read it right after him, since I think that books are not the worst way for kids to learn about some of these things — sex, alcohol, suicide, etc — but that it’s good for parents to know what their kids are reading. Chris and I have already had some interesting conversations growing out of Alaska, and I’m sure there’ll be more.
This is the story of a moderately nerdy kid, a bit of an outsider, who goes to boarding school and finds the kind of friends he’s always dreamed of having. He also finds the girl he never dared dream of — Alaska Young, one of those beautiful, smart, self-destructive and ultimately doomed teenage girls that blazes like a firecracker across the lives of her more ordinary friends. The book is divided into “before” and “after” the key event that shatters the lives of protagonist Miles and his friends, and beyond all the angst common to many young-adult novels, there’s something deeper going on here. Green uses the device of a religion class, a charistmatic teacher, and a paper Miles has to write, to probe the issues that lie beneath the events — how do we deal with the pain of this life? And do we dare to hope for anything more?
I find John Green fascinating because I see him as a “Christian writer” in the same way I see Joshilyn Jackson as a “Christian writer” — a writer who is obviously a person of deep faith, who writes about subject matter that many Christians prefer not to read about, and many Christian parents prefer their kids not to read about — sex and drugs and maybe even a little rock’n’roll. Yet it’s through these cracks in human experience that writers like Green and Jackson and others are able to let the light shine through … in a way that writers who have the imprimatur (and limitations) of Christian publishing all too often don’t.
Looking for Alaska is one of those teen novels that’s often been banned and criticized for its all-too-honest portrayal of some aspects of teen life. If you’re a parent whose teen wants to read Looking for Alaska, you should read it too — and be ready to talk.