TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
I loved author John Green's second novel, "An Abundance of Katherines," which was hilarious and touching and simply a fantastic read. For some reason, although I started it a few times, I never got around to reading his first book, "Looking for Alaska," which won the 2006 Printz Award for outstanding young adult novel. Consider that omission corrected!
Miles Halter is a teenager who's about to embark on his junior year at a new school, Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. Miles is a skinny, smart, acerbic kid who specializes in quoting the last words of dead folks. Shockingly, Miles doesn't leave a whole lot of friends behind in Florida. At the Creek, he is renamed "Pudge" and immediately becomes tight with an unusual crew of similarly smart and smart alecky teens, including his brilliant, deadpan roommate Chip "The Colonel" Martin; Romanian-born nice girl Lara; all-around pal and sidekick Takumi; and the independent, beautiful, frustrating, and ultimately enigmatic Alaska Young.
I say with no exaggeration that certain sections of this book had me bursting out with laughter, but I'm a sucker for dark, ironic, self-effacing humor, of which Pudge, Takumi, and especially the Colonel are masters. The story, though, becomes quite serious, which I felt was jarring at the time. In retrospect — and without revealing any critical plot points — the title does clearly say "looking" for Alaska, which should've been an obvious clue that our girl Alaska might somehow get lost. My bad. I just got so caught up in the sheer delight of Pudge's first semester at the Creek, reveling in his enjoyment of new friendships, crushes, drinking games, pranks, and even eye-opening classes, like Mr. "The Old Man" Hyde's religion class, that I wasn't fully prepared for the book's deeply serious turn.
"Looking for Alaska" delivers the hilarious highs and crushing lows of a pivotal year in Miles' life, one that contains its fair share of laughter, pain, and confusion. That feels about right in the end, since life often comes at you from all sides, with both good and bad, occasionally even at the same time. In the face of this turmoil, it's the bond between Pudge and the Colonel that helps both boys survive. I particularly loved the friendships in this book, and the fact that teen boys are portrayed in all their awful, real glory as immature, silly, loyal, introspective, confused, quirky, brave, and honorable people. Again, just like in life, with all the good and bad.
After following his journey, I think many readers, like Miles, will reflect on the Old Man's final exam question, borrowed from Simon Bolivar's alleged last words and Miles' yearlong quest: "How will you personally ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" Not too many young adult novels even have the nerve to ask such a profound question, let alone do so in a book that is also funny, heartfelt, and wickedly intelligent.
Although I'm late to the party here, I'll gladly add my voice to the others who have praised "Looking for Alaska" as a great book for high school readers. Yes, there is plenty of smoking, drinking, cursing, and sex in the story, but none of it feels gratuitous. This is how teens act, and it's entirely appropriate to include these behaviors in a realistic tale of teen life. I hope folks look beyond any potential red flags and see "Looking for Alaska" for what it is — a wonderful story of growing up. Definitely recommended.