Looking For Alaska
Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2005
Michael L. Printz Award
Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
An ALA Quick Pick
A Los Angeles Times 2005 Book Prize Finalist
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
A 2005 Booklist Editor’s Choice
A 2005 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Miles "Pudge" Halter is abandoning his safe-okay, boring-life. Fascinated by the last words of famous people, Pudge leaves for boarding school to seek what a dying Rabelais called the "Great Perhaps."
“So do you really memorize last words?”
She ran up beside me and grabbed my shoulder and pushed me back onto the porch swing.
“Yeah,” I said. And then hesitantly, I added, “You want to quiz me?”
“JFK,” she said.
“That’s obvious,” I answered.
“Oh, is it now?” she asked.
“No. Those were his last words. Someone said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,’ and then he said, ‘That’s obvious,’ and then he got shot.”
She laughed. “God, that’s awful. I shouldn’t laugh. But I will,” and then she laughed again. “Okay, Mr. Famous Last Words Boy. I have one for you.” She reached into her overstuffed backpack and pulled out a book. “Gabriel García Márquez. The General in His Labyrinth. Absolutely one of my favorites. It’s about Simón Bolívar.” I didn’t know who Simón Bolívar was, but she didn’t give me time to ask. “It’s a historical novel, so I don’t know if this is true, but in the book, do you know what his last words are? No, you don’t. But I am about to tell you, Señor Parting Remarks.”
And then she lit a cigarette and sucked on it so hard for so long that I thought the entire thing might burn off in one drag. She exhaled and read to me:
“‘He’—that’s Simón Bolívar—‘was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”’”
I knew great last words when I heard them, and I made a mental note to get ahold of a biography of this Simón Bolívar fellow. Beautiful last words, but I didn’t quite understand. “So what’s the labyrinth?” I asked her.
And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light. But even in the dark, I could see her eyes—fierce emeralds. She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor. And not just beautiful, but hot, too, with her breasts straining against her tight tank top, her curved legs swinging back and forth beneath the swing, flip-flops dangling from her electric-blue-painted toes. It was right then, between when I asked about the labyrinth and when she answered me, that I realized the importance of curves, of the thousand places where girls’ bodies ease from one place to another, from arc of the foot to ankle to calf, from calf to hip to waist to breast to neck to ski-slope nose to forehead to shoulder to the concave arch of the back to the butt to the etc. I’d noticed curves before, of course, but I had never quite apprehended their significance.
Her mouth close enough to me that I could feel her breath warmer than the air, she said, “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” I waited for her to keep talking, but after a while it became obvious she wanted an answer.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said finally. “Have you really read all those books in your room?”
She laughed. “Oh God no. I’ve maybe read a third of ’em. But I’m going to read them all. I call it my Life’s Library. Every summer since I was little, I’ve gone to garage sales and bought all the books that looked interesting. So I always have something to read. But there is so much to do: cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, swings to swing on. I’ll have more time for reading when I’m old and boring.”
She told me that I reminded her of the Colonel when he came to Culver Creek. They were freshmen together, she said, both scholarship kids with, as she put it, “a shared interest in booze and mischief.” The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as “the wrong crowd,” but for the wrong crowd, they both seemed awfully smart. As she lit a new cigarette off the butt of her previous one, she told me that the Colonel was smart but hadn’t done much living when he got to the Creek.
“I got rid of that problem quickly.” She smiled. “By November, I’d gotten him his first girlfriend, a perfectly nice non–Weekday Warrior named Janice. He dumped her after a month because she was too rich for his poverty-soaked blood, but whatever. We pulled our first prank that year—we filled Classroom Four with a thin layer of marbles. We’ve progressed some since then, of course.” She laughed. So Chip became the Colonel—the military-style planner of their pranks, and Alaska was ever Alaska, the larger-than-life creative force behind them.
“You’re smart like him,” she said. “Quieter, though. And cuter, but I didn’t even just say that, because I love my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, you’re not bad either,” I said, overwhelmed by her compliment. “But I didn’t just say that, because I love my girlfriend. Oh, wait. Right. I don’t have one.”
She laughed. “Yeah, don’t worry, Pudge. If there’s one thing I can get you, it’s a girlfriend. Let’s make a deal: You figure out what the labyrinth is and how to get out of it, and I’ll get you laid.”
“Deal.” We shook on it.
Later, I walked toward the dorm circle beside Alaska. The cicadas hummed their one-note song, just as they had at home in Florida. She turned to me as we made our way through the darkness and said, “When you’re walking at night, do you ever get creeped out and even though it’s silly and embarrassing you just want to run home?”
It seemed too secret and personal to admit to a virtual stranger, but I told her, “Yeah, totally.”
For a moment, she was quiet. Then she grabbed my hand, whispered, “Run run run run run,” and took off, pulling me behind her.
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults Top 10
An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers
A 2005 Booklist Editors’ Choice
A Kirkus Best Book of 2005
A 2005 SLJ Best Book of the Year
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
"What sets this novel apart is the brilliant, insightful, suffering but enduring voice of Miles Halter." --Chicago Tribune
"Funny, sad, inspiring, and always compelling." --Bookpage
"Stunning conclusion . . . one worthy of a book this good." --Philadelphia Enquirer
"The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on." --Kliatt
"What sings and soars in this gorgeously told tale is Green’s mastery of language and the sweet, rough edges of Pudge’s voice. Girls will cry and boys will find love, lust, loss and longing in Alaska’s vanilla-and-cigarettes scent." Kirkus, starred review
"Miles’s narration is alive with sweet, self-deprecating humor, and his obvious struggle to tell the story truthfully adds to his believability. Like Phineas in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends." --SLJ, starred review
"...Miles is a witty narrator who manages to be credible as the overlooked kid, but he's also an articulate spokesperson for the legions of teen searching for life meaning (his taste for famous last words is a believable and entertaining quirk), and the Colonel's smarts, clannish loyalties, and relentlessly methodological approach to problems make him a true original....There's a certain recursive fitness here, since this is exactly the kind of book that makes kids like Miles certain that boarding school will bring them their destiny, but perceptive readers may also realize that their own lives await the discovery of meaning even as they vicariously experience Miles' quest." --Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review
"Readers will only hope that this is not the last word from this promising new author." --Publishers Weekly
“John Green has written a powerful novel—one that plunges headlong into the labyrinth of life, love, and the mysteries of being human. This is a book that will touch your life, so don’t read it sitting down. Stand up, and take a step into the Great Perhaps.”
—K.L. Going, author of Fat Kid Rules the World, a Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book
Q&A with author John Green
First and foremost, what’s your favorite snack to eat while writing?
Unfortunately, typing requires two hands and eating requires atleast one, which is why one meets a lot of pale, gaunt writers. Unlike most authors, though, my "writing" involves very little in the way of typing. I mostly stare at the computer and eat Cheez-Its.
What made you decide to write this book?
Some of it has its roots in my high-school experiences. But the story came together in my head while I was working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. It was there that I imagined the character of Alaska for the first time, and there that I decided to write a novel for teens. Also, I wanted to write a book because I felt, deep inside my heart, that it would make my ex-girlfriends regret dumping me.
Where do you do most of your writing?
My apartment has a basement, which my roommates and I call “the Hole.” We all work in the Hole. My roommate, the architect, has his drafting board down here, and my roommate, the law student, sits down here in the lay-z-boy and reads these intimidatingly thick law books, and I sit with my feet propped up on my desk, eating Cheez-Its.
Have you started working on next book? Can you give us a sneak peak?
My next book is about a washed-up child prodigy who has dated 19 girls, each of whom dumped him and each of whom was named Katherine. It’s called An Abundance of Katherines, and it is, I’ll admit, semiautobiographical. I wasn’t a child prodigy or anything, and I’ve dated more Sarahs than Katherines, but I have been dumped 19 times.
What were your own high school experiences like -- and how (if at all) do they figure into your writing and affect the way you write about your character’s lives?
Like the narrator of my book, Pudge Halter, I’m a skinny dork with a last-words obsession who attended a boarding school in Alabama. But the similarities end there, mostly: Pudge is cuter than I ever was and considerably more charming. I was a bit of a troublemaker in high school, though the trouble I made was never terribly serious. I suppose I was the kind of kid who constantly gets accused of failing to "fulfill" his "potential." Pudge isn’t like that all, but I’d be lying if I said my high-school experiences didn’t inspire much of what transpires in Looking for Alaska.
Did you pull off any pranks in high school? If so, what is the most memorable?
A lot of brilliant pranks were pulled during my time at boarding school, but I wasn’t involved in most of them. My greatest personal pranking accomplishment probably came in the spring of my sophomore year. Amidst an epic prank war, my roommate and I borrowed an enemy senior’s car and parallel parked it in such a way that it blocked the entrance to the school, making it impossible for anyone to drive on or off of campus. While I don’t recommend this course of action to anyone, I’ll say this: Algebra II was canceled that morning.
Why do you write for teens and what interests you about this audience?
I like writing for teenagers because big questions—about love and religion and compassion and grief—matter to teens in a very visceral way. And it’s fun to write teenage characters. They’re funny and clever and feel so much so intensely.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
It’s hard to even pick some of my favorite authors. This would be much easier if you’d ask me who some of my favorite ex-girlfriends are, because then I’d just answer with silence and we’d all have a good laugh. I’m going to set the limit at 10 and break them up into two teams of five a side: The Living Team: J. D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, and Toni Morrison. The Dead Team: Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Robert Penn Warren. (I was going to put James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy on the Dead Team, but then the Dead Team would have won in a blow-out, and I want it to be a good match-up.)
What are you reading now?
I’m rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Hurston, you’ll note, didn’t make The Dead Team, but you could certainly make a case for her—it’s a flat-out marvel of a book. Also, I’m reading Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. I’ve been reading it off and on for almost ten years, and so far, I’ve only made it halfway through volume 2. It’s hard to get into, because I know how it’s going to end. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but I’m pretty sure the South loses. And on the kids’ side, I’m reading Ilene Cooper’s wonderful Sam I Am.
Do you know someone like Alaska? Pudge?
I don’t know anyone like Alaska anymore, but I used to. In high school, particularly, I was irrepressibly attracted to people with Alaska’s charisma and adventurousness. And I certainly know someone like Pudge: Me. In some ways, Pudge and I are different (Pudge hates novels, I love them; Pudge likes oatmeal cream pies, and I think they cause cancer). But I see a lot of Pudge in myself.
The whole dying words thing is a little morbid. Why do you think Pudge is so fascinated by them?
People’s last words are morbid, but they’re also often fun. (I think of a dying Oscar Wilde looking up at his garishly decorated hotel room and saying, "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.") I think Pudge likes last words because he likes history, he likes knowing what happened to people and why it happened, and he believes (as I do) that how people die often reveals a lot about how they lived.
Best day/Worst day?
Best Day Ever: It hasn’t quite happened yet. At the very end of the modern cinematic classic Back to the Future, there’s a scene where Mr. McFly gets a package. And inside the package are finished copies of his new novel. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been dreaming about the day when I tear open a box and find copies of my own book inside. So right now, that’s slated to be my next Best Day Ever, and I’m pretty sure it will remain so until I get married.
Worst Day Ever: When I was in middle school, my parents convinced me to go to the Cotillion, which was like a dance, only more horrible, because all the other kids who attended were really popular. I made the mistake of asking one of the girls to dance. She declined, whereupon I burst into tears. I have no idea why I started crying, but I felt very alone and rejected and ugly and generally like I would never be popular (the latter of which was pretty much true). A Cotillion chaperone had to call my dad to come pick me up. But that was also a good day in some ways, because it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and there is something nice about having your dad understand how you feel.
Favorite last words?
In the dying wittily category, I have to pick Oscar Wilde. Dying in a garishly decorated hotel room, Wilde said, “Either this wallpaper goes—or I do.” But for beauty, I sure like Emily Dickinson’s. “I must go in,” she said. “The fog is rising.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it says on your website that you were a finalist for "Chicago’s most fabulous 20somethings." Did you win?
I did, oddly enough. My girlfriend nominated me as a joke, and then, lo and behold, it turns out that I am actually fabulous. I feel like this speaks poorly of Chicago’s 20somethings as a whole, since even my girlfriend will tell you that while I have my redeeming qualities, I am not overwhelmingly fabulous. *That whole story, for example is a total lie. I never went to a career counselor. Forgive me. I have to keep practicing so my lying stays sharp.
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