Looking for Alaska by John Green

  • Title: Looking for Alaska
  • Author: John Green
  • Publisher: Dutton Books
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0525475060
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 221
  • Age Range: 13+ yrs
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award Winner; YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers; more here.

Author information: John Green has written several young adult books and is unarguably one of the most popular contemporary YA authors. His website contains a biography and FAQ section (which is broken into multiple parts based on subject or book title), a list of the author’s upcoming events, links to information about each of his books, and links to and information about his vlog with his brother, Hank. His vlog demonstrates how well Green relates to the teenagers he writes for and about, and includes humor, thoughtfulness, and intelligent discussion on a wide variety of subjects.

Reviews: Kirkus and School Library Journal both gave this title starred reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly also gave it a positive review. All of these reviews mention the honesty with which the characters are portrayed and the believably in Miles’ voice. SLJ says that “Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends” and all of the reviews agree that this novel demonstrates Green’s promise as a new writer.

Readers annotation: Miles went to boarding school to find a Great Perhaps. He found Alaska.

Summary: Miles is a teenager who is bored of his hometown and wants to go off in search of a Great Perhaps. His search takes him to boarding school, where he meets new friends, like his roommate the Colonel, and the mystifying and alluring Alaska Young. Miles, nicknamed Pudge at school, gets to know Alaska, who is an emotional ball of energy, one moment laughing at his jokes and smoking cigarettes, the next moment enveloped in guilt and sobbing into Pudge’s shirt. The novel follows Pudge’s first year at boarding school, which is full of pranks and burgeoning feelings for Alaska, until Pudge and the Colonel help her leave campus one night when she is very drunk, and she ends up driving into a police car and dying. Following her death, Pudge and the Colonel try to determine whether it was a suicide or an accident by piecing together Alaska’s final moments. They finally determine that they will never know, pull off one final prank in Alaska’s honor, and try to come to terms with the fragility of life and the resilience of the human spirit.

Evaluation: This book is a page-turner. The characters are drawn with Green’s trademark humor and tenderness, and his teenagers are smart and likeable. Each of his characters is articulate and capable of complex thoughts and reasoning, but they still struggle with the difficulties of growing up: how to iron a shirt, how to navigate romantic relationships, and how to find a place in a world that doesn’t always make sense. The fact that Green is not afraid to create intelligent teen characters who are also vulnerable and make mistakes is the greatest strength of the novel, and one that will resonate with most young adult readers. The plot of the story, while interesting, is secondary. The first portion of the novel shows Pudge trying to make friends, pull pranks, and fit in, while dealing with his crush on Alaska, who relentlessly gives him mixed signals. The second part of the book deals with Pudge and his friends coming to terms with Alaska’s death. Although these two sections have different tones and deal with different subjects, both of them encompass the teen experience and the variety of struggles that teenagers encounter, from the silly and mundane to the unspeakably tragic. Green’s writing will also make readers take notice, and they will want to re-read this book or particular passages just because he articulates the teenage (and human) experience so beautifully. Pudge’s thoughts and conversations about the labyrinth of suffering, his obsession with famous last words, and his devotion to Alaska are just a few of the areas in which Green’s prose shines. Finally, the themes in this novel are real and depicted with honesty. Readers of this book will find a lot to think about, both on personal and universal levels, and this book lends itself well to group discussion.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  The characters are brilliantly drawn and realistic, portraying the innocence and agony that is common during teenage years. The plot is smooth and believable, and the themes leave much for the reader to think about.
  • Popularity: 5/5  The name recognition that John Green has is enough to give this book a 5/5 on the popularity scale. That might bring readers to the book, but the smart characters and complex themes will keep them turning the pages.
  • Appeal factors: John Green, coming-of-age, grief, first love.

Read-alikes: 

  1. For readers looking for another title that deals with complex themes of loss and depression, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why would be a good fit. Like Green’s novel, this book deals with a teenage male protagonist who loses the girl he is infatuated with (in this case, due to suicide), and goes on a journey that helps him discover he didn’t really know much about her struggles in life.
  2. John Knowles classic A Separate Peace would be a good recommendation for readers who want a coming-of-age story told against a prep school backdrop. The protagonist, Gene, has a tumultuous friendship and then rivalry with Finney, a character who is his polar opposite, and then has to come to terms with Finney’s death.

Book talk ideas: The mere mention of John Green’s name is enough to get this title to fly off the shelves. To book talk, start by mentioning John Green’s works as a whole and how he crafts realistic and smart teenagers who are struggling with a lot of universal issues, like growing up and finding out how they fit in the world, finding and losing love, and how to handle grief and tragedies. Segue into talking about Alaska specifically, and give a brief overview of the plot and how Miles leaves his home for a boarding school and a Great Perhaps. Possibly also mention Miles’ affinity for last words, and share some of his favorites.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Miles go in search of a Great Perhaps? What do you think he means by a Great Perhaps?
  2. Many of the characters in the novel experience and have to live with extreme guilt? How do you think this shapes their personalities and their actions?
  3. What do you make of Alaska and Miles’ relationship? Was it realistic? How did it compare to the relationship between Miles and Lara?
  4. Why do you think Miles loves last words? How does not knowing Alaska’s last words affect him?
  5. How do you get out of the labyrinth?
  6. Do you think Alaska’s death was intentional or accidental? Why do you think Green left this ambiguous?

Reason for reading: I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars last year for my teen materials class and I loved it. I thought the characters were smart, funny, and the type of people I wanted to learn more about, and I thought the plot was compelling and heartbreaking. It was also wildly popular when I was reading it last year, and I work with a lot of teenagers who told me I simply had to read it. After I finished it, I started watching some of the Vlog Brothers videos and becoming really interested in how John Green connects to his audience. I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson with my book club later that year, and Looking for Alaska marks my third foray into Green’s writing. Even if I didn’t enjoy his writing as much as I do, I feel that it’s important to read his work because he is such an influential YA writer.

Additional relevant information: Green’s FAQ page about Looking for Alaskalocated on his website, is a must-have for anybody doing a book discussion on this novel or to recommend to readers who want to dive a little deeper into Green’s creative process surrounding this book. It discusses a variety of subjects: Green’s decision to label the chapters in chronological relation to Alaska’s death, the inclusion of the “sexy” scenes, the use of religion throughout the novel, stories about the pranks and the level of autobiography in the text, and Green’s favorite parts of the novel, among other subjects. The information divulged here will definitely spark conversation, help readers notice details they missed when reading the book, and prompt further thought about the themes and ideas expressed within the novel.

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