Looking for Alaska by John Green

Ambivalence. I was just going to list this book on my “books read in August” list with a note saying “NOT recommended” next to the title. However, in some ways, it’s a great book.

Mr. Green writes about The Issues of Adolescence —life, death, and sexuality–with verve and humor. The characters in the novel are unique and yet representative of typical teenagers. The situations and jokes and the midnight conversations are funny, and sometimes even profound. I could picture The Colonel, and Pudge (Miles), and Takumi and Lara and Alaska, and I felt as I read that I got to know them as a group of rebellious teens and as individuals. In fact, I wanted to slap them up the side of the face for the stupid decisions they made, and applaud their search for meaning in an essentially absurd universe.

However, and it’s a big however, I was more than uncomfortable with the language and the graphic descriptions of adolescent sexual explorations that pervaded the novel. I know that some teenagers (not all) try out sex in all its manifestations, and I know that some teens (not all) use language that would make a sailor blush. But I don’t really want to read about it. And I don’t feel very good about my teenagers reading about it.

So, I’d say that Looking for Alaska is a well-written, insightful, funny, blasphemous profane, and sexually explicit look at adolescence on the wild side. The actions and reactions of the characters are believable and sometimes deplorable. Oh, and Mr. Green won the Prinz Award for YA literature for this debut novel in 2006. Enter at your own risk.

I’m curious. Are there any subjects or is there any kind of language that is out of bounds anymore for a young adult novel? I’m asking because I really don’t know. Would it be acceptable for me to describe, in detail, child sexual abuse or necrophilia in my young adult novel if I were an author of YA fiction? Not that Looking for Alaska deals with those particular subjects, because it doesn’t, but I’m asking out of curiosity because I really don’t know. Are there any uncrossable lines anymore? Are there ten, seven, or even five words, you can’t use in YA fiction?

And what do you think the “lines” should be, if any? Should the standards be different from those in adult fiction? (Not that I can tell that there are any in adult fiction.)

Mr. Green responds and readers discuss.

Semicolon review of An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.

Semicolon’s September: Celebrations, Links and Birthdays

22 thoughts on “Looking for Alaska by John Green

  1. I don’t like the idea of sheltering my children to death. And yes, I do think it is possible to shelter children to death – to make them incapable of functioning in society because they do not know how to properly deal with the issues that they see and come up against.

    That being said, I also like the idea of preserving innocence. I long for the day when the age of 12 was still innocent and a bit naive. Now they seem to know everything.

    My preference is to shield (shield, not shelter) them from most of “that” material in book and/or movie form until I know that they are firmly grounded in truth and can meet that behavior head on, without flinching, and will know that they can stand.

    So I’d say if an author is going to choose subject matter that is very explicit then they won’t gain readership in our family. At least not right away. By the time they are 16 though I expect that they’ll choose wisely and be discerning enough to know what is truth and what isn’t. Then I wouldn’t be (as) concerned.

  2. Just started reading this last night after having it recommended to me. I love YA fiction, so I’m interested to see how I feel about it. I’ll link my review to the Saturday Review of Books when I’m done.

  3. Good Question!

    Yes, I do think that YA books should have a standard – just like movies have PG and PG 13. In my naivety, I assumed that YA book WERE free (or mostly free) of offensive language and sexual content.

    And,t I think this is a small example of why free societies become not so free. When people aren’t willing to self-regulate then the state steps in and does it for us – usually at a greater cost.

  4. I answer the question posed at the end of this post over on my blog: http://sparksflyup.com/weblog.php

    Also, I have to vigorously (but amicably!) disagree with DebD above about why free societies become not so free. It is not our inability to self-regulate that leads to tyranny; if anyone has a historical example of this occurring, I’d be interested to hear it. Thanks for reading the book! -John

  5. Firstly, I agree with John Green’s comment that the “lines” issue is less about the actual lines and more about how and why they are crossed.

    Secondly, I don’t really think there should be standards. Parents should be aware enough of what their children are reading to know when its too much. I would also venture that all this depends on the maturity of each child. My youngest brother is 16 and probably would be fine reading LfA now, but certainly not at 14. My other brother matured early and 12 or 13 years old would have been ok for him.

    I recently read Looking for Alaska and loved it. I’m young enough to remember what it was like to be 16 – sorry, parents, all that sex, smoking and drinking really does happen. What LfA does do, is show these actions and their _consequences_ realistically. Its not written this way to encourage more sales or corrupt youth. I would even venture to say that most people who have read the book come out thinking twice about partaking in those activities.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.

  6. Shelby

    I think when the merit of the book does not out weigh the obscenity of the novel it becomes inappropriate. Looking for Alaska is a fascinatring look at deep themes. After I read the book when I was 14 it made me think about death, dying and life. Looking back at the novel I immeidiatly think of these themes rather than anything some people may think is inappropriate.
    However, if a book isn’t stimulating and is just explicit it is probably inappropriate. An example of this is Gossip Girl. I read on eof those books at about the same time I read Alaska. The only thing I remember about it was all the bad stuff the characters did.
    Obviously some content is inappropriet for less mature teens but then not all parents would want the teens watching R rated movies. It is less about the content the author writes about than the maturity of the reader.

  7. Rebekah

    The problem with withholding certain materials from teenagers collectively – such as seeing something you suspect to be inappropriate – is that it is both completely ineffectual and, really, counterproductive. Whether or not adults want to accept it, adolescence is a period of time in which experimentation in various taboo or “inappropriate” practices is far more commonplace than the opposite. Teenagers engage in sexual activities and make terrible decisions – they use foul language, smoke in bathrooms, and act out in pretentious, angsty rebellion against parents and perceived limitations. Any book written about teenagers is thus rendered kind of pointless if it doesn’t accurately reflect the adolescence its aiming to write about, and when done well, profanity and obscenity can add another layer of complexity, richness, and relevance to a work of fiction (such as in Looking for Alaska). As a teenager (and a fairly squeaky-clean one at that), I can testify to the fact that the things that went on in LfA are really relatively tame in comparison to the average teenager.

  8. Darks Ash Bay

    I have several points to make on this issue.
    First of all, I agree with John Green and many other commenters that it’s not the lines you cross, but how you cross them. He isn’t actively endorsing any of the things in the book; he’s not claiming that people should like any of it. It’s necessary, and it makes it more realistic, and there is a purpose for it.

    Second, I strongly disagree with sheltering young adults or teenagers from this kind of material. Teenagers are not children, they are also not monkeys. If they read about sex or violence or swearing, it does not automatically mean that they will go out and have sex and commit murder and swear at everyone (some of those admittedly being worse than others). They do have brains, and most teenagers actually use them; they are sensible about things. I probably would be uncomfortable with a young child reading Looking for Alaska, but I would be perfectly okay with any teenager that I know to be even slightly sensible to read it.

    Because really, teenagers DO have common sense. The book is, as a previous commenter said, actually more likely to discourage young adults from doing the things outlined in the book.
    Again, as John Green has mentioned once, the most explicit scene in the book (not even that bad) contains very little emotion, and is there specifically as a contrast to the scene directly following it, which is much more emotional with very little physical connection at all.

    I think Looking for Alaska is a good book, well-written and stimulating and not really even that inappropriate. I would recommend keeping it more or less away from much younger readers (not that it would interest them much anyway) until you know that they know the truth about the issues outlined in the book, which usually happens in school anyway once they reach a sensible age. Most teenagers are mature enough to face these issues in a book. (The parents of the few that aren’t would definitely know, and may not want to give their children this book.)

    Just my opinion on the matter.

  9. Pinon Coffee

    To answer your question: I don’t know whether there are any lines that can’t be crossed in YA. I rather doubt it. I theorize that it’s because, culturally, rebellion and line-pushing are more admirable that any incomprehensible and probably mindless adherence to “the good” (however those “religious types” want to define that).

    Anyway. I just finished a similarly foul YA novel yesterday, which made me want to go go write a decent book myself–and in the meantime pick up _Voyage of the Dawn Treader_ to cleanse my soul.

  10. To set the record straight, I wasn’t advocating withholding anything from anybody. I just said that I felt uncomfortable reading some of the passages in the book, and I think my teens would, too. I do have three teenage daughters, ages 13, 16, and 18. I wouldn’t recommend the book to my thirteen year old.In fact, she read my review a little while ago, and I told her exactly why I didn’t think she would be comfortable reading the book. I wouldn’t like to see my sixteen year old reading it, but if she wanted to do so after I explained some of the stuff that was in it, I’d let her. And my eighteen year old? I’d probably ask her what she thought if I saw her reading it.

    I’m actually not much on forbidding my chidren or young adults to read or watch anything. My approach is usually to talk about their choices with them, find out why they’re drawn to this movie or that book, and then give advice if I feel I need to. Then I let them, especially the young adults, make their own decisions.

  11. aria

    Coming from the point of view of a teenager who has read the book (it doesn’t appear that one has commented as of yet): I’ve never had sex or smoked a cigarette or drank anything stronger than communion wine. I curse a little bit, but not to excess at all.

    And yet, nothing in Looking For Alaska offended me in the slightest. (And as for being ‘sheltered’, I’m not even allowed to watch rated-r movies). Nothing in it made me want to go out and do any of the more questionable things that the characters do. The only affects that Alaska had on me were positive, because ultimately, the message of the book is positive. The characters suffer major ramifications for the choices that they make.

    I read a lot of adult fiction and a lot of YA, and I honestly can’t see many distinctions in subject matter. There are completely clean books marketed for adults, and stuff that’s more ‘blasphemous’ than Looking For Alaska published in YA. The only thing that teens probably shouldn’t be reading is erotica (my thirteen-year-old cousin has an addiction to that that I find thouroughly disturbing), because I can actually see how that would make more impressionable girls want to run out and have sex. I think that what parents don’t realize is that teens hear more cursing opening their lockers in a crowded hall than in any book that they’re reading. So no, there shouldn’t be any list of words that are taboo in YA fiction.

    If you’re worried about words, though, I’d definitely reccomend John Green’s other book, An Abundance of Katherines- it provided a cursing alternative that me and my friends DO use a lot. Also, it’s fabulous.

  12. I haven’t read this book (‘though I might now), so I probably shouldn’t comment. However, as former (way former) teen reader who was consistently put off by much of what you discuss about YA literature, I just had to weigh in here. I just finished The Book Thief, and although it didn’t have pervasive sexuality, it did have a lot of profanity that offended me as a Christian. Do I still think it’s a worthwhile read? Yes. Do I now want to go out and curse a blue streak just because I read a book with a lot of cursing? No. I have two small children, and I really want them to be avid readers. I also don’t want them to have the terrific amount of angst that I had as a teen about this. I’m really not sure how to avoid it, though. My parents weren’t overly protective about my exposure to literature; in fact, they honestly rarely knew what I read. There is a fine line between not allowing exposure to what we deem wrong and allowing enough exposure so that our children are not shell-shocked when they finally get a glimpse of the real world. I like your approach, Sherry.

  13. Jude

    I’m a high school librarian. Out of all the students I know well (and I try to know all 425 of them well), I’ve recommended this book to one student who loved it. She identified completely with Alaska. I didn’t love it, but that was mostly because I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and the characters spend most of their time in smoke-filled rooms, so the reading it made me feel claustrophic. I didn’t love the characters and I found the plot predictable. Two students returned the book long before they reached the sex passage that makes you question the nature of YA fiction.

  14. Regarding “Are there any subjects or is there any kind of language that is out of bounds anymore for a young adult novel?” I provide the following:

    The subject matter of a YA book is different depending on whether the book is intended for a thirteen-year-old or a seventeen-year-old. Despite intended age determinations for these books, liberals and conservatives continue to battle over the age appropriateness of subjects such as relationships, sex, drugs, and death. Judy Blume, an author of books for young readers, caused a scandal in 1975 with Forever (1975), which is commonly considered the first YA book to deal with teen love and teen pregnancy. Although Bradbury Press infuriated Blume by advertising the book as Blume’s first adult book, Forever is a Young Adult novel; it soon made its way into the teen audience (Foerstal 107). Sharyn November, senior editor at Puffin and Viking Children’s Books, said “Gatekeepers often underestimate what teens can handle. [Teens] know a lot. They self-censor when they read–they skip over what they don’t understand and focus on what makes sense to them at that point in their lives” (qtd. in Maughan, “Making”).

    Young Adult publishers are journeying into new and potentially dangerous subjects. One YA editor notes, “As more and more edgy fiction is being published, the books are dealing with issues that hadn’t been dealt with before: oral sex, male rape, incest. There seem to be no boundaries any more” (qtd. in Milliot et al. 39). In 2004, bookstores were filled with YA books that addressed edgy subjects: Cynthia Voigt’s When She Hollers (1994) and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (rape) (1999); Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland (2000) and Alex Flinn’s Breathing Underwater (2001) (emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive relationships); Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2001), Shelley Stoehr’s Crosses (1991), and Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel (2003) (self-mutilation); Margaret Bechard’s Hanging on to Max (2002) and Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last (2003) (teen fatherhood); and Linda Glovach’s Beauty Queen (1998) (most of the aforementioned issues as well as teenage exotic dancing, threesomes, and heroin addiction). Amazon.com enables teens to find particular issue books by clicking on “Teen Books,” then “Social Issues,” which provides headings such as “Dating and Intimacy,” “Drug Use and Abuse,” “Pregnancy,” “Suicide,” and “Violence.” A search box allows users to enter one’s own issue. Young Adult Literature has broken nearly every boundary of acceptable subject matter in trying to address real-life problems and intrigue teen readers.

    Source: Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature, Cat Yampbell, The Lion and the Unicorn; Sep 2005; 29:3; Children’s Module, The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp348-372, at p350-351.

  15. Alysson

    In my opinion knowledge is very rarely something that hurts. As a child my parents told me anything I needed to know,and taught me the meaning of any swear word I wanted to know the definition of. I was taught young about sex and homosexual relationships and that everyone is titled to their opinions and desires. I was taught all about drugs and smoking and the negative effects they had on people. It may seem Unorthodox, but knowing these things allowed me to know what was right and what was wrong. It allowed me to be more accepting, and to make smart choices for myself.

    I also have a younger sister who is 14. Often I forget how much she knows. In my mind she will always be young and innocent, but in reality at her age I knew everything there was to know about sex (not from experience, merely knowledge) and drugs and swearing. And although I do not like to think about it, she is just as informed. She probably knows people who have already had sex, and been drunk, and been high… even if she is not friends with these people or engages in these activities herself.

    As for lines, a lot of swearing in my mind only makes the mind more at ease with i (a word is evil because we are told it is so, our mind is trained to make it so) and the sex scene is hardly meant to make you want to go out and have sex… it’s meant to encourage youth to look for a loving relationship, instead of doing it just because. Anything that is in Looking For Alaska is thee for a reason, and as long as YA books are putting their obscenities there FOR A REASON (for symbolism, or to make the reader uncomfortable… ect) Then literature remains uncorrupted. It is when sex or swearing is put for absolutely NO REASON.. that literature suffers blows.

    Children and Teenagers have opinions of their own and great ability to understand that which is real and that which is false. Reading something does not make them want to get up and go do it, any more then watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ makes you want to go do heart surgery on the next individual you meet. Macbeth doesn’t make you want to kill the king, Great Expectations doesn’t make you want to help out criminals, and Of Mice and Men doesn’t make you want to kill puppies and pretty women accidentally.

    As J K Rowling said in her recent speech at Harvard “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places” This ability allows us to help other human beings with extraordinary kindness. Imagination is a fantastic power, and because of it adults and children alike can read something which is not their own,and not something they aspire to and they can be alright with that and make choices accordingly. Looking for Alaska is one of my favorite books because it does just that. I am an eighteen year old girl, who does not drink, does not smoke, and has not engaged in sex as of yet. Looking for Alaska did not show me these things in a favorable light.. it made me want to learn more about religion (even if I do not strongly believe in any), made me experience real emotions over these characters, and made me glad for the main character (even though he had gone through so many terrible things, he went out a experienced something, learned something, and changed as a human being.)

    It is easy for many of us to see that which is obscene, and that the characters are not exactly what parents would wish their children to grow up as… but as readers it is not this we should be looking at. Often the ‘Why’ is more important then the ‘what’

  16. Sara W

    As others have said, the activites considered risky or innapropriate in this novel are far more tame than what really goes on in high school. These exploits are more like middle school behavior than high school and perhaps the only way to prevent such behavior is by teaching teens through a book with realistic characters and realistic consquences.

  17. I myself am a young adult and sometimes I even squirm when I read YA books that contain a lot of cussing and sexual content. It’s true that young people now have more ‘knowledge’ than the young people of say, 10 or 20 years ago, so I guess it’s quite normal to have such content in YA books. But then I’d prefer that writers save those for adult books and not give young people anymore funny ideas!

  18. Personally I so not have a problem with the mature things found in YA reading nowadays. I have 2 boys aged 11 and 15, and the way I deal with their reading is read what they read. When it comes to reading I do not want to place any boundaries for them. My boys are avid readers who read at above high school levels, I know that I am very lucky in this way, because working at a school library I have seen some 12 year olds who cannot read more than basic one sentence per page picture books. By knowing what my kids are reading I feel that they will be more likely to come to me with any questions they have over the content, and they do. We have conversations daily over what they are reading at the moment, and both boys are extremely insightful and have acknowledged their feelings about sex, language and drugs/alcohol in books and tried to reason out why authors choose to add these elements. In some cases they find it necessary to the story, but their have been times that they’ve decided the author was trying to appear “cool” to the YA crowd.

  19. nt.

    I am a teenager. This book reminded me a lot of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, which, during its first years, was classified as a “banned-book” in many educational institutions. However, it is now somewhat of a “classic”, and it’s language and sexual content enhance the many themes of the book. They help the reader connect with the story.

    “Looking for Alaska” is one of the best books I have ever read. I recommend it to strangers when at the library. I’m completely serious. Many YA books these days are full of meaningless, shallow stories. “Looking for Alaska” was different, it made you think. I went out and bought this book after reading it twice, because some of the ideas are incredible, and they are definitely worthy of being quoted. Adults do not realize the importance of books like these, books with meaning, books that are thought provoking. Yes, the language is clearly not “G-rated”, but that is because LIFE itself is not G-rated. Books should portray life (and death, because it is a part of life) accurately. Without having to sugar-coat the hardships. Without having to censor the language.

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