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Lots of potential as a classroom text
on February 3, 2014
Looking for Alaska -- Amazon review
As a coming-of-age story geared toward young adults, "Looking for Alaska" colors outside the lines enthusiastically and often. Its fanciful language is profane in a way that many grade school texts are not, and its handful of sexual encounters are explicit (hilariously so, in one memorable instance). I'm a preservice educator who's assembling a mental list of teachable texts, and these sequences did give me pause, if only because I can anticipate reasonable objections from parents who want to explore these ideas with their kids on their time.
But for students beginning to forge points of view on some of life's bigger ideas -- among them sex, loyalty, suicide, and how much thought to give the rules -- "Looking for Alaska" is a fine place to start. The book follows a worn groove for this genre, complete with experimental drug use and its own manic pixie dream girl, but it decorates these tropes with enough sincere flourishes to keep the attention of readers who've trod this path before. The way main character Miles shuffles off his introverted, largely friendless identity as soon as he gets to boarding school struck me as especially thoughtful. Kids try on different versions of themselves all the time, and the fact that Miles does so with minimal fanfare rang true to me.
For classroom use, I do have some reservations. The novel feels at times like the chattiest episodes of "Dawson's Creek," wherein cliquey bands of idle kids lay out or obscure their feelings using a kind of surreal, uniquely contemporary teenage eloquence that too often draws attention to itself. In "Alaska," this comes across not only in dialogue, but in Miles' narration, during which Green abuses hyphenated modifiers ("the Colonel's I-hate-the-rich routine") and capital letters as a means of demonstrating Very Important versions of otherwise pedestrian ideas -- several things happen Before a very grave thing happens, for instance.
The book is aspirational this way, and I think that's to be commended. I developed much of my own writerly identity, such as it is, from "Angel" and "Buffy" reruns, which teased out the flexibility of casual English but made me insufferably adjectival through most of college.
On the other hand, this deliberate approach to teenage chatter could make for rich lessons in voice. How, when and for what reasons do Miles, Chip and Alaska code-switch between high-minded literary English and colloquial talk? What does their preoccupation with slang and nicknames indicate about what they're actually communicating to each other and the staff at their boarding school? Until the halfway point, the book is divided into a series of picaresque misadventures, which lend themselves well to this sort of isolated close-reading. There are opportunities for cross-disciplinary work, too, the most obvious of which would be Dr. Hyde's world religions class. Teaching this book in ninth or tenth grade would dovetail with explorations into Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and any other belief systems students take up in global history classes.
There's a lot to like here, and I think most kids will be able to digest the more challenging stuff on offer. I recommend the book cautiously to teachers looking for a more relatable substitute for "A Separate Peace," with one proviso -- mechanically, not all of the language in "Alaska" is the kind you'll want your students to emulate.