author: John Green
published: 28 December 2006
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Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (François Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.
After. Nothing is ever the same.
I initially picked this book to read for a literature class I am taking for a module on the censorship and banning of books for children and young adults. Having absolutely loved The Fault in Our Stars, when I saw this John Green novel on the ALA’s list of most frequently banned books in the 21st century, I jumped at it. The grounds for its censorship has been the presence of profanity, underage drinking and smoking, drug use, and sexual content. It is true, there is all of that, but presented in a realistic, true-to-life way. I am staunchly opposed to censorship and banning and this is a book that I not only don’t believe deserves to be banned, but it is one that I have made a “must read” for my own kids.
The novel takes place within the Culver Creek Preparatory High School near Birmingham, Alabama. Miles “Pudge” Halter is the new student, obsessed with the last words of famous people. He has transferred to Culver Creek in the hopes that he can find his own “Great Perhaps,” an idea that has come from the last words of François Rabelais, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” At his last school, Miles was a bit socially awkward, more obsessed with reading biographies than with socializing with friends, and he wants to start fresh at Culver Creek. The first person he meets is Chip “The Colonel” Martin, his new roommate who introduces Miles to his own best friends. Takumi Hikohito is obsessed with hip hop and rapping and Alaska Young is a beautiful girl, although emotionally rather unstable, for whom Miles immediately falls.
In many ways, Alaska is the glue that holds the group of friends together. She is beautiful and intelligent and fun to be with and very enigmatic. Although we see different parts of her throughout the book, we, as readers, never really know her any more than her friends do. Even at the end, there are questions that leave you angsty and emotional. Her story is her own and threads of it run through the stories of all of her friends. She is irrevocably a part of their own histories in a myriad of ways.
More than anything, it is a story of coming of age, with all of the pain and angst that goes along with it. There are beautiful moments, funny moments heart wrenching moments, touching moments. There are moments of laughter and moments of sadness. It is an absolutely beautiful story.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was its structure. It is created in two parts, “Before” and “After,” leading us to and from a pivotal point that I won’t describe. The chapters underscored that concept, marking time like “forty-five days before.” You know something is going to happen, but you have no idea what it is.
I think that this is a beautiful book that touches on real situations in ways that are both touching and tragic.
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