The award-winning, genre-defining debut from John Green, the #1 bestselling author of Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars
Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award • A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist • A New York Times Bestseller • A USA Today Bestseller • NPR’s Top Ten Best-Ever Teen Novels • TIME magazine’s 100 Best Young Adult Novels of All Time • A PBS Great American Read Selection • Millions of copies sold!
First drink. First prank. First friend. First love.
Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words—and tired of his safe life at home. He leaves for boarding school to seek what the dying poet François Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.” Much awaits Miles at Culver Creek, including Alaska Young, who will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapult him into the Great Perhaps.
Looking for Alaska brilliantly chronicles the indelible impact one life can have on another. A modern classic, this stunning debut marked #1 bestselling author John Green’s arrival as a groundbreaking new voice in contemporary fiction.
Newly updated edition includes a brand-new Readers' Guide featuring a Q&A with author John Green
About the Author
John Green is an award-winning, New York Times–bestselling author whose many accolades include the Printz Medal, a Printz Honor, and the Edgar Award. He has twice been a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. With his brother, Hank, John is one half of the Vlogbrothers (youtube.com/vlogbrothers), one of the most popular online video projects in the world. You can join the millions who follow John on Twitter (@realjohngreen) and tumblr (fishingboatproceeds.tumblr.com) or visit him online at johngreenbooks.com.
John lives with his family in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Read an Excerpt
“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.
What People are Saying About This
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 Inquirer
"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
Reading Group Guide
Looking for Alaska
Everybody has a talent. Miles Halter’s is knowing the last words of a lot of different people—people like the author Rabelais, whose enigmatic last words “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” inspire the sixteen year-old to leave his family home in Florida and enroll in Culver Creek, a co-ed boarding school in Alabama. There he makes a new circle of friends: his roommate Chip, a scholarship student whom everyone calls “The Colonel;” Takumi, a slyly funny Japanese-American rapper; and sweet-spirited, Romanian-born Lara, who has trouble pronouncing the letter “i.” But most importantly he meets Alaska, a beautiful girl who “had eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor.” Miles quickly falls in love with this reckless, quirky, endlessly intriguing girl. An omnivorous reader, Alaska introduces him to a new set of last words — those of South American liberator Simón Bolivar — that pose an intriguing question, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” It’s a question that takes on a deeper, more poignant resonance when an unthinkable tragedy invites Miles to examine the meanings of life . . . and death.
ABOUT JOHN GREEN
John Green is the author of Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. He lives in New York City.
SPEAKING WITH JOHN GREEN
Q. What’s the difference between writing fiction and lying?
A. To begin with, when you tell a lie, you generally do not admit upfront that it’s a lie. Like, if I am lying to you about who stole the cookie from the cookie jar, I am not going to preface it by saying, “While I am about to convince you that John Doe stole the cookie from the cookie jar, the cookie was actually stolen by me.” But when you write fiction, as with Looking for Alaska, it says “a novel” right on the cover. Before a reader has even opened the book, the writer has acknowledged that this is a story, and that the story does not faithfully recount events that actually occurred. The other big difference, I would argue, is that lies are attempts to hide the truth by willfully denying facts. Fiction, on the other hand, is an attempt to reveal the truth by ignoring facts. To paraphrase William Faulkner, I am much more interested in the truth than in the facts. One of the challenges in writing Alaska was learning not to overvalue facts. When I first started writing the book, I kept thinking I ought to include things that happened because they had happened. It took years before I was able to let go of the facts and focus on writing a true novel.
Q. In that vein, just how autobiographical is Looking for Alaska?
A. I have always danced around this question, and I think I’m going to continue dancing around it now. Like Miles, I grew up in Florida and attended a boarding school in Alabama. And the physical setting of Alaska is very, very similar to the physical place I attended boarding school. Generally, the book is probably more autobiographical than I usually acknowledge. But it is very much a work of fiction. The facts, I can assure you, were ignored.
Q. What was the catalyst for this novel? A. In the study of religion, there is this word theodicy, which refers to the question of why a God who is both loving and all powerful would allow there to be such unequal suffering in the world. In college, when I started to study religion, that was the question that interested me most. So in some ways, that was the catalyst for the novel. After I graduated from college, I worked for a while at a children’s hospital, where I encountered the same problem in stark, awful reality. It was in the hospital that I started to think about writing a story in which teenagers experience loss and a consuming guilt that cannot be easily assuaged. I started writing it just a few months after I left the hospital.
Q. Did you write it with a specific audience in mind?
A. Yes. From the very beginning, I wrote the book for high-school students.
Q. How did you come up with the book’s unusual structure?
A. I’d been working on the book with very limited success for about 18 months before September 11, 2001. And then in the days after 9/11, I was alone in my apartment in Chicago watching the commercial-free news 24 hours a day. On TV, people kept saying that this was a defining moment for my generation of Americans, that we would all remember the world in terms of before 9/11 and after it. And I thought about how time is usually measured that way: Christians date from before and after the birth of Christ. Muslims date from before and after the hijrah. We look back to the most important moment in our history, and that becomes the dividing line between what we were and what we are now. So I wanted to reflect on the way we measure and think of time. And also, for the characters in Alaska, there is a moment that changes their lives forever, and that redefines their understanding of the world. I wanted the importance of that moment to be central to the novel’s structure.
Q. Chip (i.e., the Colonel) says, “Everybody’s got a talent.” What’s yours?
A. I’m a pretty ordinary person in most respects, but I suppose I am good at finding and remembering trivia. I’m not sure whether that qualifies as a talent, but it’s the closest I’ve got.
Q. Miles’ teacher Dr. Hyde tells him to “be present.” What does that mean to you?
A. It means listening. Listening is a very rare skill, and in these noisy times, it is more and more valuable.
Q. Did you have a teacher like Dr. Hyde?
A. You’re finding a different way to ask the autobiography question! I feel like I should reward your perseverance with a fuller answer. I had several teachers who inspired me the way Dr. Hyde inspires Miles. But as a character, he is based on three particular teachers. In high school, I had a history teacher named Dr. Cooper. He lectured a lot and scared the hell out of his students and kicked you out of class if you didn’t listen—but also cared deeply about us. And then in college, my religion professor Donald Rogan and my writing professor P. F. Kluge both had a lot of Dr. Hyde in them. I stole lines from all three teachers, but particularly from Rogan.
Q. Miles learns to take religion seriously. Did you? And, if so, do you still take it seriously?
A. I did learn to take religion seriously, and in much the same way that Miles does: Donald Rogan was an excellent teacher. He was obviously smarter than me, and he found religion interesting, so I came to find it interesting also. Religion concerns itself with the same existential questions that I find interesting and important. I think I probably prefer the study of religion to the practice of it, though. That said, I do consider myself religious now. In high school, I had a classmate who attended a Southern Baptist church, and he was a nice guy, but he would always ask me questions about religion that I felt invaded my privacy. One time, he asked me, “How is your relationship with God, John?” I thought about it for a while, and then finally I said, “Complicated.” It was complicated then, and after studying religion in college and working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and seriously considering a career as a minister, it remains complicated. I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I’m also not embarrassed by my doubt.
Q. How did your time as a chaplain at a children’s hospital influence your development as a writer?
A. All the fiction I’ve written since working at that hospital has in some way echoed some feeling or experience or question that arose while I was at the hospital. In many ways, it was a before-and-after moment in my own life.
Q. The character of Alaska tells Miles, “The only real geniuses are artists.” Do you agree? And who are some people whom you regard as geniuses?
A. There’s a lot of my high-school self in the character Alaska, and I suspect I would have agreed with that statement as a teenager. But I think there are mathematical and scientific geniuses, too. I think genius is rare, but I don’t think it discriminates. I’m also not convinced that a person just is or is not a genius. I think that genius can come and go. Mark Twain wrote my favorite American novel, but he also wrote the awful Joan of Arc. Georg Cantor invented set theory and revolutionized our understanding of infinity, but he also thought Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a nebulous thing, genius. Unless you are Shakespeare.
Q. Miles writes, “Teenagers think they are invincible.” Did you when you were a teen? Do you, now, as an adult?
A. I was aware as a teenager of the fact that I might die, and it scared me a little. But I never felt like dying would affect my overall invincibility, if that makes sense. It’s a little like what Muhammad Ali said after his third fight with Joe Frazier. After the fight, which Ali won, Ali said that he thought at times that Frazier might kill him. “If he had killed me,” Ali said, “I would have gotten back up and won the fight. I would have been the first dead heavyweight champion of the world.” I felt like that as a teenager. I feel a little more fragile now. I still think people are invincible, but I’d rather not find out for sure.
Q. Because “booze and mischief” play significant parts in Looking for Alaska, the book has been challenged. Were you ever tempted to censor yourself when you were writing the novel?
A. No. It never even occurred to me that it might be a problem while I was writing it. I got nervous when the book came closer to publication, though. I have to give full credit to my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel. She was absolutely steadfast about refusing to censor the novel, even when I wasn’t. My friend David Levithan once said of gay writers, “We are political novelists who do not wish to be political.” I feel a bit of that when it comes to banning books from classrooms and libraries. I don’t want to have to fight that fight, but I won’t shirk the responsibility I feel to my books and my readers. Teachers have been trained to teach, and they know how to teach, and we need to fight to let them teach—whether it’s Catcher in the Rye (or Alaska, for that matter) in an English class or evolution in a Biology class.
Q. And finally: In the “Some Last Words on Last Words” section at the end of Looking for Alaska, you write, “I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.” Would you expand on this? And are there ever any truly last words?
A. The Dutch title of Alaska is Het Grote Misschien, which means The Great Perhaps. But if you type it into Babel Fish, it translates Het Grote Misschien as “The Big Maybe.” I’m undecided as to whether there are ever any truly last words. That’s the big maybe. As for the quote cited above, I mean that I believe in hope, in what is sometimes called “radical hope.” I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering-and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness.
- Discuss the book’s unusual structure. Why do you suppose Green chose this strategy for telling his story? How else might he have structured the same material?
- Miles tells the story in his own first-person voice. How might the book differ if it had been told in Alaska’s voice or the Colonel’s? Or in the voice of an omniscient narrator?
- The Colonel says “Everybody’s got a talent.” Do you?
- Miles’s teacher Dr. Hyde tells him to “be present.” What does this mean?
- John Green worked for a time as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. How do you think that influenced the writing ofLooking For Alaska?
- What do you think “The Great Perhaps” means?
- And how about Bolivar’s “labyrinth?”
- In the “Some last words on last words” section at the end of the book, Green writes, “I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.” What do you think he means by this?
- Has this novel changed the way you regard human suffering? And death?
- One of the characters, Dr. Hyde says, “Everything that comes together falls apart.” Do you think the author agrees? How does he deal with this Zen belief in his novel?
- Alaska loves these two lines from the poet W. C. Auden: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” What do these lines mean to you and why do you think Alaska likes them so much?
- Miles writes, “Teenagers think they are invincible.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Was it necessary for Alaska to die?
- This novel is filled with wonderful characters. Who is your favorite? Why? Do you know any people like these characters?
- Can you imagine Miles and the Colonel as adults? What might they be like? What professions do you suppose they might choose?