Censorship and Looking For Alaska

12May12

John Green‘s Looking for Alaska won the 2006 ALA Michael L. Prinz Award and was the 2005. School Library Journal’s Book of the Year. Sumner County Schools in Tennessee have just banned the book, considering a brief oral sex scene as too racy for the teen audience. They are not the first to do so: the book has been banned in schools in Knox County, Tennessee, and challenged in other places. I’m going to rant about that a bit, but then I want to examine why the scene is there and what would we miss in terms of plot, theme and character development if Mr. Green had decided to excise it. I promise to keep the rant even more brief than the scene in question. I’m not even going to rant about censorship; there are some things that are developmentally inappropriate for an age group and an adult’s responsibility is to let kids explore the literature that those children are ready for. I think censorship has little place beyond the freshman year of high school, but if someone wished to argue whether the line should be set at eighth grade or tenth I would listen respectfully and consider the material and the arguments.

My rant starts and ends with the condescending remark made by Sumner County School Board spokesman Jeremy Johnson saying that “…language or description that may make parents uncomfortable…” is OK if it’s done by a Steinbeck or a Hemingway, but not if it’s done by living author. OK, he didn’t say living author, but that’s the way I read it: if the author is someone he read in high school then we’re talking about someone of true stature and value. The ALA and the School Library Journal beg to differ. Check out John Green’s response to the challenge by a parent in the Depew County, NY school system.

Down to business. I won’t do a real or detailed summary of the book, but there are [SPOILERS], so be warned.

Cover, from Amazon.com

Miles “Pudge” Halter is the thin, gawky protagonist of the novel, and he decides to go to Culver Creek, his father’s boarding school, to follow the last words of Rabelais, “I go to seek a great Perhaps.” He falls in with a group of bright outcasts, pranksters in both the literal and, I think, Jungian sense. He, like the others in the group, falls in love with Alaska Young, and the book divides itself quite naturally into “before” and “after” Alaska’s death. The scene in question takes place the day before Alaska dies, and the context is important.

The group has just staged an elaborate and dangerous prank. They hide overnight in a barn, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and talk. They have an excruciatingly, beautifully honest game of “best day, worst day” in which they all share some of their most treasured and painful memories. Lara, the only other girl in the group of five, becomes Pudge’s “girlfriend,” and they spend the night chastely together in a sleeping bag. The next day, back in the dorm, Lara asks Pudge if he’s ever had a blow job. He’s startled and awkward, as is she. They start, but realize that neither of them understand the mechanics, so they get dressed and go ask Alaska how it’s done! After getting a lesson they complete the deed. There’s an awkward silence which Lara eventually ends with, “So, want to do some homework?” The only real sharing comes later, when Pudge tries to explain his fascination with people’s last words.

That evening Alaska dares Pudge to hook up with her. They make out.

We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.”

Mr. Green says that the oral sex scene is there to show the difference between sterile sexuality and communication, and cites the contrast between the scene with Lara and the following scene (between Pudge and Alaska). Honestly, I think the most intimate scene in the book is the scene before the oral sex scene, with the five kids sharing their best and worst days. Either way, the contrast is stark.

The scene is truly a masterpiece of character development, though. It shows Pudge as guarded and reserved, awkward, and Lara as reaching out and looking for a way to reach out to him. It shows the INCREDIBLE trust they both have in Alaska. They assume together and without discussion that she will know what the mechanics of oral sex are and that she’ll be willing to teach them, will not humiliate them and will not violate their trust. And they’re right.

Finally, structurally, the oral sex scene does several things. It establishes Alaska as the lynch-pin of their group, and therefore of their lives at Culver Creek. When she dies, they’ve lost their center. The scene also, set between best day/worst day and Pudge’s love scene with Alaska, gives the cause for the guilt and ambivalent feelings that drive Pudge away from Lara and prevent the two of them from finding solace and support from each other after Alaska’s death. Taken together, those three scenes give an emotional foundation to the drama of the second half of the book, and its resolution.

Wikipedia talks about a parent in Depew who supported the challenge against Looking For Alaska without reading the book, saying, “One does not need to have cancer to diagnose cancer.” I have diagnosed cancer, and he’s right. But mindless censorship of any book with content that might make that man uncomfortable is cancer, too.



2 Responses to “Censorship and Looking For Alaska”

  1. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both
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    on the head. The problem is something that too few people are speaking intelligently about.
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  1. 1 John Green on Accusations of Pornography | Going Beyond Survival in a School Library

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