“Looking for Alaska” legitimizes young adult fiction

Natalie Schermer

People hate “Twilight” for a lot of reasons: there’s too much romance, Edward is creepy, Stephenie Meyer can’t write — the list is endless and varied. Personally, I hate “Twilight”for what it’s done to young adult literature.

A relatively new genre, there’s always been a stereotype that young adult literature, because of its intended audience, is somehow beneath “real” fiction written for mature adults. There persists a belief that everything young adult is simplified — simpler prose, simpler ideas, simpler themes.

This isn’t to say there aren’t young adult novels that are like this. There are plenty of them. But these sorts of books exist in adult fiction, too: romance novels and pulp mysteries and endless Danielle Steele books.

Novels like “Twilight” perpetuate this perception of YA literature. They’re the reason Barnes and Noble now has a “Paranormal Teen Romance” section. Seriously, guys, that’s not a genre.

Because of novels like “Twilight,” young adult fiction doesn’t get taken seriously, and thus, the authors who choose to write for this field often get passed over. Personally, I’m a big proponent of the idea of young adult literature as just that: literature.

I believe the same themes and ideas which supposedly separate YA from the real stuff can be expressed just as well, if not better, for a young adult audience. Markus Zusak did this with his novel “The Book Thief” — published as YA in the U.S., but popular among young and old. In fact, it was released as adult fiction in Australia and New Zealand.

There’s a fine line between the two, and sometimes the only real difference is where they’re shelved in the bookstore or the age of the protagonist.

One author who walks this line admirably well is John Green. His novel “Looking for Alaska” tells the story of Miles, a high school student obsessed with famous last words.

Miles is starting his first year at Culver Creek boarding school and from the very beginning we’re introduced to a great set of characters: Chip “The Colonel,” who promptly decides to call Miles “Pudge” — it’s funny because he’s skinny; Takumi, who wears a fox hat whenever he’s up to no good; and of course, the beautiful, smart, mysterious Alaska, who Miles promptly falls for.

Alaska quickly becomes the center of Miles’ life at Culver Creek. He hangs out with her and her friends and gets included when they decide to play a prank on their rivals at school. On the surface, “Looking for Alaska” seems like exactly what you’d expect from a young adult novel: high school, drinking, partying and relationships.

But “Looking for Alaska” goes much deeper than that. Behind these common subjects are themes of loss, poverty and depression. The story isn’t told in traditional chapters, either. Instead, it’s divided into two parts: before and after.

There’s an event in the story that changes everything, and Green doesn’t hide from the emotions and reactions this event provokes. He doesn’t shy away from serious themes because of the intended audience or young protagonist; if anything, the emotions are more real because of the slightly simpler, conversational tone of the novel.

“Looking for Alaska” presents a strong case for the merits of YA literature. If more people thought of John Green instead of Stephenie Meyer when they heard the term young adult, maybe literature snobs wouldn’t look down on the genre quite as much anymore.

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