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

by Kim on May 20, 2010 · 23 comments

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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.

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