I bought Looking for Alaska by John Green at a recent book festival because it had a nice shiny round gold Printz Award sticker on the cover that gleamed up at me invitingly from the rows of books on the table. At the cash register, two college-aged cashiers, a boy and a girl, gasped in unison, "We love this book!" They sighed, they clutched their hearts. The girl said, "I get so jealous when someone gets to read a really great book for the first time." I thought to myself, "Self, these are your people," and I instantly trusted their judgment.
(If you're one of the few people left on earth who hasn't read this book, I encourage you to pick it up without reading about it first. This is one where being spoiler-free is key. Trust me. Don't read reviews, don't read about the book on the author's website, don't Google anything about the book. Just read it.)
I won't spoil this book for you. What I can tell you about it is this: It's about an 11th grader who leaves home to attend boarding school, by choice. In his words: "I came here looking for a Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life."
He finds the Great Perhaps he is seeking in many forms -- in a roommate named The Colonel, who quickly becomes his first Real Friend, and who nicknames him "Pudge" because he's so skinny. In taking up covert sessions of smoking cigarettes and drinking Strawberry Hill. In thinking deeply for the first time about world religions and what happens to us when we die. In eating fried burritos and being the victim and mastermind of complicated pranks. In seeking to identify what is the most important question humans beings must answer, and in trying to figure out how to answer it. In wondering how we get through life's labyrinth of suffering. And in meeting a girl named Alaska, who changes everything.
I spent a lot of time when reading this book trying to picture Alaska in my mind. It felt important somehow. The only image I could settle on was an intellectual version of Kim Kelly on Freaks and Geeks. She smokes too much and drinks too much and sometimes seems to be filled with sorrow and rage.
I was bothered by the fact that I wasn't sure if I really liked Alaska, and it's hard when you think you might dislike the person your hero loves the most. But then I realized that maybe I wasn't supposed to like Alaska all the time ... she can be obnoxious and mean, after all. But she is also brilliant and loyal and wildly adventurous and fun. She's a real person, wounded and angry and wonderful and lost, and of course Pudge loves her. As he explains, "She taught me everything I knew about crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry. She made me different."
When I look back on this book, I see moments and images in my mind. I see the Colonel climbing into Pudge's bottom bunk with him when he returns, freezing, from a very long walk. (Not in a seductive way, in a "I just need to be next to my friend who can help warm me up" kind of way.) I see firecrackers being set off in the night and a group of friends making a ritual out of throwing cigarettes into a stream. I see blue hair and a boy in a fox hat and a vase of white tulips and the tears of a strict dean of students and the wheezing breaths of an ancient teacher talking about how what different religions share are messages of radical hope.
Above all, this is a story of friendship. What really got me in the heart was the relationship between Pudge and the Colonel. They just love each other, and they have each other's backs, and they're not afraid to admit this and always come back to this truth no matter how profound their struggles. This portrayal of male adolescent friendship was so moving to me.
It's also about how drastically your life can change in the course of a single year and how opening yourself to new experiences and people can rock your world in the most wonderful and terrible ways. In reading a little more about it, I've learned that along with its many accolades, the book has been challenged as "pornographic," which I dismiss as patently ridiculous.
So there's drinking, smoking, and sexuality ... welcome to high school. This book is so much more than that. I'd happily slap this book into the hand of any teenager, or even any tween, because in addition to being a great read, it teaches what I think are some invaluable lessons: that the most important questions are the hardest to answer, that some mysteries can't be solved, and that life is beautiful and ugly and always infinitely worth living.