on July 6, 2014
Yikes! oral sex on a first date in a YA novel...
Though Miles "Pudge" Halter is a somewhat more appealing coming of age narrator than the boring Holden Caulfield, I was, as both high school English teacher and parent of a son and daughter, more than a little shocked by the gallons of alcohol and countless number of cigarettes smoked by the charismatic, but self-destructive Alaska and her prank-obsessed clique at the Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama.
Would I want my own son and daughter reading this novel?
Should I timidly place Green's award-winning book on the overcrowded, independent reading bookshelf in my classroom and risk being chewed out by an outraged parent, dragged before the school board, and fired? (Fired being the modern day equivalent of the state approved poisoning of Socrates by the powers that be/were for corrupting the minds and morals of Athenian youth)
I have taught at both public and prep schools, secular and religious, in big city and small. More than anything I hope to inspire my students to be--well, life-long readers who are book crazy, who get deeply and deliriously moved by what the characters in books DO and choose NOT TO DO, thinking and feeling deeply, so they can become--and I know this sounds corny--better people and wiser citizens of Planet Teen. (I hereby amend Sartre's definition of existentialism: "We are what we do" to "We are what we don't do") when it comes to the big and small matters of the heart.
The writer part of me thinks that Green's "famous last words" is a gimmick, but the reader part of me was deeply moved and truly enjoyed discovering the last words of Tom Edison and others.
In today's hurly burly society with digital gadgets galore, reading is one of the last few places where a young adult gets time to THINK. And teens will think when they read "Looking for Alaska". No parent wants his or her teen to get into a car drunk. Every parent hopes that if the teen does, true friends will arm wrestle the keys away, if necessary, because drunk driving has tragic consequences; and yes, we are all responsible for one another--especially the teen bystander who has the most power to help a friend in need.
The "before" and "after" structure of Green's inventive novel, gives teen readers space to think about the life and death choices they make and cannot unmake. There's a lot of talk in high schools about consequences and teen's taking responsibility for their choices. In fiction, students get to live many lives, walk in the shoes of teens who are alike and different from them, and hopefully become more discerning, more compassionate. More. Few of us will become as rich or as successful as John Green. But all of us have a chance to be that Good Samaritan, the one who makes the difference in somebody else's life among our own circle of friends.
So, despite the vulgarity, despite the wholly offensive oral sex scene which the Catholic mother in me wants rip out (my heart aches for Lara), I reservedly praise this controversial novel. Because I think, I hope what John Green is trying to do, besides earn money as an author, is tell a good and perhaps even wise story that encourages teens to press the pause button, to stop and reflect on what happens after you have clumsy, unromantic sex, and the boy dumps you, to think about how your behavior may or may not be enabling what may very well become a lifelong addiction for another, more vulnerable human being. Readers of LFA will discover what goes terribly awry when unresolved grief eats away at you, discover what is it like to be the nerd, the trailer trash scholarship geek, the rich preppie, and the desperately seeking bipolar alcoholic who though pretty and smart is profoundly unhappy.
My favorite character was the Old Man, the old-fashioned religious philosophy teacher. But, there was a character missing in this novel--the guidance counselor, that caring adult, a teacher or janitor somebody grown-up who would have discerned how lost and on the edge Alaska was, and helped her heal from the guilt surrounding the death of her mother. Unlike Margot Roth Spiegelman in "Paper Towns", I found Alaska Young to be a deeply sympathetic, dangerous character who betrays her roommate, Lara, and Miles. In many ways, this is a very ethical book. Miles goes the distance is looking, not just for Alaska and the Great Perhaps of whether she committed suicide or not, he goes the spiritual miles of looking for forgiveness, a very Christian idea.
BTW, my own nephew, the irreplaceable and wholly awesome Mark Jr, was killed by a drunk teen driver, when he himself was just a teen. By some fault in the stars, I read "Looking for Alaska" near the anniversary of Mark Jr.'s death.
I give "Looking for Alaska" four stars, minus one for the obvious parental reasons. I would consider teaching it in a community college freshman class, but nope, not high school,even thought it has all the hot button topics that need to be discussed in the high school classroom.
I reserve five stars for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' sublime "The Yearling" and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women". They sure don't write YA novels like they use to. And that is truly a shame. A coda to best selling and immensely talented YA author, John Green: "less is more" when it comes to all things vulgar in YA novels. You do, as an artist, have a responsibility to your impressionable YA readers and our culture at large to uplift both. Yes, I know: "Romeo and Juliet" has vulgar language and bawdy scenes too, but I won't get fired for teaching Shakespeare. This novel is not representative of the "average" American teen; it is a rich white boy's lament, which is why it fails--like the "Knock, Knock" joke.