Sunday, February 28, 2010

Looking For Alaska

Although Looking for Alaska is probably not appropriate for younger children, it is not entirely clear why it has become a cause célèbre among the censorious crowd.  The book does contain underage smoking and drinking, swearing, and some sex, but also is marketed for, and usually shelved in libraries for, older teens and young adults.

In Depew, New York, in 2008, the book was being used in an 11th-grade English class, as it is in many English classes across America. Recognizing the book could be controversial, the school administration sent a letter to parents, offering them a choice: parents could choose to allow their children to read Looking for Alaska or an alternative book. This protected parental choice, but that was just not enough for some parents, who wanted to choose for other people’s children and not just their own. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get the school to drop the book entirely.  In September of 2009 it showed up on the list of 43 books challenged in Leesburg, Florida.  It also figures heavily in SafeLibraries’ ramblings. He quotes extensively from the book on his website, claiming it is “One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children.”  In one blog post, SafeLibraries somehow blames the American Library Association for the accidental placement of the book with children’s literature on a grocery store shelf. The cover is identifiable in the photograph he provides, although he doesn’t name the book, describing it merely as “an ALA-awarded book containing oral sex.”

The best defense of the book comes from the author John Green himself, who reacted with anger and humor in a 4-minute video, available on YouTube and his website.

Looking for Alaska
 is about Miles Halter, a sixteen-year-old who realizes he is leading a ridiculously uneventful life and so sets off for boarding school. There he meets the crazy yet wonderful Alaska Young. When tragedy strikes, he must come to terms with loss and love. Well written and rich with metaphor and humour, the book enables the reader to relate to the characters and their emotions.

Miles and his friends do engage in smoking and drinking, which are not portrayed as positive behaviors, but as the effects of peer pressure. At one point, the characters watch a pornographic movie pilfered from another student’s room. There are a few sentences giving a very basic description of what is going on in the movie, but the discussion among the characters also points out the minuses of pornography. The biggest controversy seems to arise from a few sexual scenes, including one that describes Miles receiving oral sex from his girlfriend Lara. Honestly, this scene is about as arousing as the back of a shampoo bottle. The scene is, as author John Green intended, awkward, clumsy, and vapid. It is part of the subplot that Miles is dating Lara because having a girlfriend is a part of "fitting in," and that his emotional connection with her is weak. It is meant to contrast with the next scene where there is an intense emotional connection between Miles and Alaska.

[This article was written in collaboration with Meghan of]


  1. I hadn't even heard of this controversy. Thanks for the update - and the great blog. Discovered you via a Google News alert. I'll be reading regularly.

  2. Yay it's up! I'm famous ;)!

    The font of the blog seems different this time, is it my imagination?

  3. Welcom, Zero Boss. I'm following yours now too.

    Meghan: I find the fonts vary depending on how I paste text from one or more wordprocessors into the blogspot editor. Sometimes I remember to edit the HTML on blogspot to get more specific about that, but more often I forget. Sometimes I'm surprised how the final blog post looks, because the preview tool on blogspot doesn't always render things in exactly the final form.

  4. Ah, I've had that happen a few times. Ah, HTML, thou art a fickle mistress.

  5. I agree. The dreaded oral sex scene is neither pornographic nor all that explicit, and it is integral to both plot and character development. Also, the book was intentionally never marketed as a children's book.

    I was aware of the Depew challenge and blogged about the Tennessee ban, but somehow missed the Florida challenge.