Banned Book Review: Looking for Alaska

Banned Book Week 2013

Have you ever been upset to discover that one of your favorite books has been banned?  I have. Sheila over at Book Journey wants to spread awareness about banned books, and I’m joining in!

You can find more posts about banned books at her site, as well long lists of books that have been banned or challenged at the American Library Association Website.



Note: According to the ALA:

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.

Now, I admit, I have some issues with Looking for Alaska, by John Green.  But do I think it should be banned?  No way.

Looking for Alaska has the witty voice, literary references, and BIG IDEAS that I’ve come to expect from Mr. Green.  It earned the Printz Award for excellence in YA literature as well as a recommendation from Common Sense Media for older teen reads.

But Looking for Alaska has a lot of content: drinking, smoking, sex.  Enough to earn it a spot on the American Library Association’s list of top ten frequently challenged books of 2012.  The reasons cited on the ALA site: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.

Looking for AlaskaThe Premise

Miles Halter has never fit in.  He decides to leave his public high school in Florida for a private boarding school in the sweltering heat of Alabama.  There, in his search for “The Great Perhaps”, he meets Alaska Young.  She’s curvy, talks about “boob honks,” and has a suicidal smoking habit.

Immediately, Miles is smitten.

I wanted to smack him in the head.

What I didn’t like

I realized quickly that the tone of this novel is much different from Paper Towns or The Fault in Our Stars.

  1. Crudeness prevails.  But, this is a story told by a 17-year-old boy living with other teens under minimal supervision.
  2. Miles never resists the pressure to smoke.  Day one, he lights up.
  3. Very important:  Alaska annoys me.  She spouts off about our patriarchal society and its objectification of women while she’s wearing a tight tank top and short cut-offs.  She says she’s “not trying to be flirty” when she lays down and puts her head in Miles’s lap.  She’s moody, self-absorbed, and screwed up.  But Miles, and many of his companions, love her. (Foolish, hormonal boys!)

What I did like

Even though I didn’t enjoy the characters, I persevered to the end of Looking for Alaska.  And I found some cool stuff.

  1. Miles must write a paper that answers the question: “What is your cause for hope?”  His insights are thoughtful and authentic.  This question permeates the novel and is an excellent discussion point.
  2. Mr. Green redeemed himself to me with his “Intentionally vague and broad discussion questions” in the reader’s guide.  He pulls out the big issues of the book- forgiveness, ambiguity, grief, – and underscores the meaning behind all the adolescent shenanigans in his novel.  On the issue of teen smoking, he asks, “Why would anyone ever pay money in exchange for the opportunity to acquire lung cancer and/or emphysema?”  Oh, the symbolism!
  3. Great lines like this:

If we could only see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions.  But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.  

See?  Wow.

And so, despite the offensive content, I hope Looking for Alaska stays available to teens.  Even though some parts made me cringe, other parts made me think.  And that’s what matters.

Caveat:  I don’t want my children to read it until they are at least 17, but that’s my decision, not the government’s.

Have you read a book like Looking for Alaska that had offensive content but also important big ideas?  How do you feel about the banning of books?

Banned Books Week Giveaway!

Anyone who comments on the blog between Sept 20 and Sept 29 will be entered into a drawing to win a copy of Looking for Alaska or another book from the ALA Banned book list. Share your thoughts!




Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and


  1. I am 15, my 10th grade English class just finished this book. I do not think this book should be banned. Yes, I do love this book, but others who have read it also do not think it should be banned. It in fact, does NOT have any sex scenes, it talks about Miles, (Pudge) watching porn as fun, but does not depict what happens other than Alaska saying how unenjoyable it looks to a girl. Pudge gets a girlfriend, and she gives him a blowjob, which John Green does not write in depth about, they after all are Juniors in high school. Then the last night before Alaska’s accident, they make out a little rough. So what, kids in high school know how bad somethings are. And if your a good parent you would have already had the “Sex talk” with them right as high school started. Your kids are growing up, which means Looking for Alaska is a great book for kids to read in high school English classes. Kids are more mature than you know, so instead of banning a book in High school, just don’t ruin the fun for others who want to read it in their English classes. Let them enjoy reading, and not make it feel like a crime.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth for adding to this discussion! Reading should never feel like a crime. I’m glad you liked the book, and I hope your English class covered some of the wonderful themes John Green included in his novel. Happy reading. 😉

  2. I have read this book and find the defense of this book being read in our schools very disturbing. Just because it may be beautifully written with great lessons, as many claim, ignoring the fact that it is obscene and has multiple references drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex throughout the book. This is not appropriate for required reading in our schools, and it is very irresponsible to put this in the hands of children especially without notifying parents of the content first! Our school has it on 9th grade summer reading list. This is 13-14 year olds who are very impressionable. If you think they won’t be then you don’t remember being 14. They will not see all the value that an adult reader may see. They will remember the sex, smoking and drinking in the book. I work with many kids of this age and they were not talking about the book amongst themselves for its literary merit!

    1. Wow, I am surprised it’s on the 9th grade required summer reading list. I would definitely take issue with that as a parent; my oldest is about to finish 9th grade and I still don’t want him to read it. I wish schools included a summary and potentially offensive content for each book on their lists, and gave options for controversial books, so that kids and parents could choose what’s best for them. I also think we adults can help impressionable teens by starting a conversation about the valuable parts of the novel – and get them thinking about something besides the sex and substance abuse.

  3. I need to talk with my daughter about Looking For Alaska – I know she owns it, but I’m not sure if she has read it. I’ll have to check out Paper Towns based on your recommendations too. And I completely agree – it’s my decision what I read, or what my kids read – not the governments.

  4. You bring up good points, but I must disagree with your opinion that it was a bad thing that Miles have into peer pressure to smoke. What John Green writes about is the actuality of human nature, not the idealisation and the role models that we look for. The fact that Miles gives into the peer pressure shows what is wrong with our society, and if that bothers you, that’s because I believe that was the point; to show that we are so easily persuaded by society and that that is not okay. Thank you.

    1. Kaitlyn, what a great point! One thing I love about John Green’s books are his BIG IDEAS, and I was so busy being irritated by Miles that I forgot to consider the WHY. Green’s questions at the back of his novel got me thinking; he said something like “why would one pay for the opportunity to acquire lung cancer or COPD?” Your comment helps illuminate the issue even more. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  5. You bring up some great points, Julia, and I agree with you. I may want my child to wait to read a particular book, but I think we should be the ones to decide when and what. I loved Fault in Our Stars so much that I’ve been dying to get my hands on another of Green’s book! Great book description and yes, after having worked with so many teens over the years, I can attest to how real those teeanage male hormones are. The other day my daughter came talking about the boys in her class and how they couldn’t stop talking about losing their “v-card.” Ack.

    1. “V-card”- that’s a new one. Thanks for enlightening me. Can I recommend Paper Towns for your next Green read? I liked it better than Alaska, although the main love interest in that one is also somewhat wacky and self-absorbed. Nothing like Hazel!

  6. I don’t usually have a problem with offensive material (things I don’t or wouldn’t do) so long as it is in keeping with a character or developing an idea in a work of non-fiction. I don’t smoke but I don’t find it objectionable when a character in a book smokes, even a young one. It can reveal many things about that character: risk taking, sensuality, impulsivity, rebellion, curiosity. The only offense would be if the action or trait was out of character, an add-on in a futile attempt to prop up a weak story or character. Book and movies do this so often reviews seldom even mention the mandatory car-flipping explosions and obligatory clothes-flinging sex scenes that do not in any way advance the story. Even if it is tasteless in my opinion or clearly bad art, I would never advocate censoring books or movies. I do advocate teaching children how to discern the elements of a good story.
    Books in my library that were or are banned: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Rainbow, Huck Finn, Black Beauty, Brave New World, Call of the Wild, Doctor Zhivago, Howl, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Outsiders, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Wrinkle in Time, the King James Bible.

    1. Excellent points, Kris! I guess I was disappointed that Miles didn’t resist peer pressure to smoke- I’m always lookin for good role models in fiction. But, it does fit his character- a boy in search of the Great Perhaps, willing to try anything because not much else has worked yet. And John Green is definitely going for the symbolism you mentioned- rebellion, danger, etc.
      Sounds like you have great books on your shelves! Glad you stopped by!

    1. Thank you Sheila for bringing it some much needed attention! Yes, TFIOS is my favorite John Green book. I love it so much, I’m not sure that I want to see the movie!

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