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Heart and Depth in John Green’s ‘Looking for Alaska’

Heart and Depth in John Green’s ‘Looking for Alaska’ post image

When I broke down the genre of the first 20 books I read this year, Becker (Dwelling in Possibility) suggested that I should read more YA fiction. Coincidentally, I already had John Green’s first book, Looking for Alaska, on request from the library — awesome! I also had a five hour bus ride home at the end of the semester, and a thin YA book felt like about all my brain could handle.

John Green is one of those authors that it seems like every YA book blogger loves. After reading Looking for Alaska, I certainly see why. The book is the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter — a friendless high school kid who is tired of his safe life living with his parents. To explore some adventure he decides to go to Culver Creek Boarding School. There he meets Alaska Young and friends — a group of slight misfits with a love of pranking and bending the rules just far enough that they don’t break. Alaska steals Pudge’s heart by being beautiful and funny, but also a big, big mess. But of course you don’t really find out why right away, and I’m not about to spoil that.

There are a lot of relatively obvious things that I liked about this book — the characters felt real, they got in trouble (but not too much trouble to be ridiculous), the writing was clean and effective. But what I think I really liked about the book was the level of complexity John Green brought to it at almost every level.

First, there’s the structure. Every section at the beginning of the book starts with some notation of days Before. Before what, we don’t know, but there’s this ongoing countdown to some event that, the reader assumes, will change everything. And then everything else is After. I like how that works — building a sense of climax and building a sense of theme all in a simple storytelling device. It’s elegant.

Second, there’s the event. I won’t say what it is, just that I really didn’t know what it was going to be and there were moments when I was convinced it would be something else and then it turned out not to be that thing and I just didn’t know. Not to be snobby, but that doesn’t happen in a lot of books. I’m a good guesser about what will happen, so I like a book that does a convincing job of keeping me in the dark.

Third, there’s the character’s traits and flaws. I don’t like when books make characters quirky just to be quirky. I like when the quirks and passions have purpose, meaning, and help bring depth to the story. John Green does this so well. Pudge’s love for the last words of dead people, Alaska’s love of a specific quote, the literary discussions the characters have with one another — every one of these moments ended up having meaning in the end that made the book richer. I really appreciate that quality in a story.

I don’t know that I want to rate the book in any sense because I somehow don’t feel qualified to do that. I feel like that’s sort of a common theme lately, I’m not sure. But I do think that Looking for Alaska lives up to the hype it’s gotten as a great YA book, and would offer something to people not normally interested in the genre because of it’s depth and story structure.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) May 20, 2010, 4:41 pm

    Wow! I won this book a while ago – sounds like I need to pull out of the stacks.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:37 am

      bermudaonion: Yes, I think you should pull it out. Lucky you for winning it 🙂

  • jess May 21, 2010, 7:12 am

    I just finished Paper Towns last week and loved it. I am looking forward to reading this as well. Great review.

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:37 am

      jess: I’m looking forward to more John Green books too. I’ve heard many good things about Paper Towns.

  • Iris May 22, 2010, 3:50 am

    I don’t read YA often, but this sounds like a worthy read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention 🙂

    • Kim May 22, 2010, 11:38 am

      Iris: I don’t read YA a lot either, but this one is definitely worth picking up. And since it’s YA, it’s a super quick read.

  • kay May 22, 2010, 6:55 pm

    I absolutely loved this one, too. I think it works so well because while it is marketed as YA, it feels like an almost-coming-of-age kind of book. The story isn’t just about “high school stories” or cute romances, and I like that. I think his books will stand the test of time better because of that, too!

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:39 pm

      kay: Yeah, I agree, there is a lot of coming of age in the book, without it being too much. The romances and relationships were taken seriously.

  • Savvy Working Gal May 23, 2010, 2:44 pm

    I’ve tagged you for a much deserved award in my new post! You are one of my favorite non-fiction bloggers and I’ve been meaning to comment on how much I like your narrative non-fiction 5 lists.

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:39 pm

      Savvy Working Girl: Thank you so much, and I’m sorry it took me so long to make it over there and say that.

  • Jenny May 25, 2010, 8:34 pm

    Yay for John Green! This is the only one of his books I’ve read so far, and I thought it was superb. Although since then, my sister read it in her YA Lit class and told us all about the unbelievably awkward and oversharey conversations that her class had, and now I can’t think of the book without thinking of all the things I know about my sister’s classmates’s youthful indiscretions.

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:41 pm

      Jenny: Oh yes, I’m sure this inspired a lot of oversharing. While it’s fun to talk about personal experiences in relationship to a book, for some things that doesn’t matter. I think a personal conversation with this book could get uncomfortable or take away from talking about what is a really elegant story.

  • Jodie May 26, 2010, 4:37 am

    Yay it’s so good (I also picked up Paper Towns this week, I think it’s the precursor to the ideas for Looking for Alaska). I really wish I hadn’t known what the event was before I read it so I advise a total big reviewer blackout for anyone still waiting to read it as some are not so good at avoiding spoilers (not you luv, you are awesome at that). I agree it’s the details that make them all so great, but also the details are real, not just ticks for quirkiness.

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:42 pm

      Jodie: Thanks — I HATE spoilers so much. I even hesitated to write at all about this one, but I think the structure gives away that something big is going to happen. And yes, exactly, the quirks are not just quirks, they have meaning. Yay for that!

  • Clover May 26, 2010, 2:21 pm

    I really loved this one as well. And John Green, and you’re so right about how complexly he writes his stories. Wait until you read Paper Towns!

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:42 pm

      Clover: Clearly, Paper Towns needs to move up on my TBR list.

  • Kailana May 29, 2010, 11:54 am

    I loved this book! I am glad you got a chance to read it and enjoyed it!

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:43 pm

      Kailana: Thanks, I’m glad I did too. It was a good one.

  • Nat June 20, 2010, 3:34 pm

    I know this might sound stupid but for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on any of Miles’ specific internal traits. Will you please help me by naming a few so I can understand the book better?

    • Kim June 22, 2010, 4:33 pm

      Nat: I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t reference it to be sure. I think Miles was independent but also impressionable. Thoughtful, caring, tough. But those are pretty general. I’d go through and re-read the first few sections and that might help.

      • Nat June 23, 2010, 8:22 am

        Thank you 😀