Disclaimers of this blog post:
- My intentions with this project are to display the timeline of the book, from its publication to its heavily covered banning.
- Due to the book’s media coverage, many points in this post risk being repeated. That said, at times throughout this post I have linked to past articles I found particularly influential and informative.
- In relation, it is possible others have chosen to blog about this book as well. Any possible repetition is unintentional.
Teenagers are critically engaged and thoughtful readers, they do not read Looking for Alaska and think, “I should go have some aggressively unerotic oral sex.” – John Green
There are some who arguably misunderstand the purpose of censorship (if we are arguing for a purpose at all). If a book is mislabeled as one age group when it is intended for another, it can be argued that it should be banned. If a book is written simply to be overtly sensational or attacks a certain group sincerely or without merit, that too can stand as an argument. A book like Looking for Alaska falls under the category of “victimized without defendable cause” (source: me).
In 2005, Green’s first novel Looking for Alaska was published by Dutton Juvenile, a division of Penguin that is known for originally publishing Winnie-the-Pooh. In 2006 the book was awarded the Michael L. Printz award from the American Library Association, which honors the “best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit,” (according to the ALA).
By 2008 it was introduced into the curriculum at Depew High School, where English teacher Christine Ferreri claimed the book “fit perfectly into our coming-of-age curriculum,” (Buffalo.com) planning to follow it up with Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, the school board made a decision to send students home with a permission slip, asking parents for signed approval to teach the book to their children in class. Ferreri reported that 97 percent of parents signed their approval, but five rejected the book and even the possibility of assigning their children a separate book. This invited a school board meeting, and nearly 10 years of controversy to follow.
“Would any of you read this aloud at a board meeting?” Gabrielle Miller, parent of a ninth-grader, asked the school board. “What’s next? Free condoms and unisex showers?” (Buffalo.com)
Pastor of Hillview Baptist Church in Depew, Rev. Nelson C. McCall, said he had not read the book “but a doctor doesn’t have to have cancer to treat someone who has.” (Buffalo.com)
John Green had sent a letter to the school to be read in time for their school board meeting, and additionally posted a video on it in his early YouTube days summing up his thoughts and counterargument.
The controversial scene that led to the book’s banning takes place over one page. An awkward scene involving the protagonist, Pudge, and his girlfriend Lara:
And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes…she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there, waiting.
And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.
“Should I do something? … Should I, like, bite it?”
“Don’t bite! I mean, I don’t think. I think—I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don’t know if there’s something else.”
“I mean, but you deedn’t—”
“Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.” (Green 127)
That’s the issue parents had with the book, one scene. Green would explain in a more elaborate post (Green LFA). that the scene was meant to juxtapose meaningless sex with a more emotional connection which takes places a few later.
Looking for Alaska was banned not for being sexually explicit, like the overtly sensational Fifty Shades of Grey, but because some people, when given the power to decide the fate of literature, attempted to steal the air away from a story fighting to breathe the difficult, emotional reality of young adulthood, even when they had not read the book. Though Depew inevitably voted to keep the book in its school system, the book’s troubles didn’t end there.
John Green’s book went on to top the ALA’s list of the most challenged books of 2015. In 2012 a Tennessee school district banned the book from being taught in all classes. This sparked a debate between the Sumner County Schools and the National Coalition Against Censorship. The school district claimed the book was not pre-approved for syllabuses, and the NCAC claimed the district was imposing its viewpoint “on the entire student body, without regard to the education consequences for students.” (SLJ.com) Again in 2015, New Jersey school districts banned the book because of one parent’s complaint, encouraging John Green to record another video in response. (NJ.com).
Though clearly permissible, imposing personal standards to override community accords, or pandering to one view while ignoring mass opinion, is a ridiculous methodology. Society is no more culturally educated and aware than it was in its sheltered puritanical period when it refuses to understand each other. After all, books, as John Green says, “challenge and interrogate; they give us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so that we can better see ourselves.”
Even some bookstores were opposed to carrying a cover of a Young Adult novel with a cigarette on it, causing the publisher to change the smoke source to a candle instead. (Many other versions of the cover were made, some focusing more on the flower.)