Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Looking For Alaska, Printz Award, 2006

The story of Looking For Alaska depends entirely on character. The boy-meets-girl, girl-dies-tragically plot is weak, but three vivid characters–Pudge, the Colonel, and Alaska–shine as Green’s true accomplishments in this book.  

Pudge is a unique teenager– intensely inquisitive, kind-hearted, and desperate for affection. We see his character most clearly in the way he views Alaska. He sees himself as nothing, and Alaska as everything in this passage:
“[I wished we could] just sleep together, in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane” (88).
The ability to make the reader love, hope, pine, and lash out just as the main character does is a mark of great fiction. Green does this beautifully, and as the book progresses, the reader also takes his focus off Pudge and develops an obsession with Alaska.

Voice, style, and authenticity all contribute to this melding of character and reader. Pudge’s voice is intelligent and obsessive. It is invaded by reference to Alaska even where she isn’t immediately present. For example, when he day dreams in class, he thinks,
 “The trees seemed to clothe the hill, and just as I would never notice a particular cotton thread on the magnificently tight orange tank top Alaska wore that day, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest – everything so intricately woven together that it made no sense to think of one tree as independent from the hill” (39).

Style changes effectively reflect Pudge’s state of mind including physical and emotional calamity. For instance, Pudge’s change in mind during his concussion is evident from his incessant repetition of “I’m concussed.”  Minute details display his hopelessness after Alaska’s death–details like, “I’d gotten a plastic stock car with my Happy Meal, and it sat overturned on the table. I spun the wheels” (175).

Authenticity of a teenage experience furthers the bond between character and reader. High school is full of silly pranks, little crushes, big dreams, nervous embarrassment after any sexual encounter, and relationships that consist of little but fighting or settling for the easiest companion. I specifically identified with the fun of cramming six people into a tiny old car to go to McDonalds.

There were only a few problems I had with this text. I personally could not identify with the prevalence of smoking, drinking, and sex in a high school setting, because I attended a private school where immediate expulsion was the consequence for these activities. I also had questions about plausibility like, Why is a dork like Pudge attractive to Lara and Alaska? and, How are these students getting such high grades when they spend so much time drinking, talking about sex, and playing pranks? and, Why would any parent pay for their child to attend a school which cultivates such blatant disregard for authority?

My biggest problem with the story is Pudge’s treatment of Lara. After setting Alaska up as a such a strong feminist, Green works against his own message by allowing Pudge to ditch Lara immediately after their first sex experience. In his grief over Alaska, Pudge becomes the kind of hit-and-run guy that Alaska and all self-actualized women would despise.

Themes in Looking for Alaska include relationships, authority, religious philosophy, death, guilt, and forgiveness. Controversial issues include underage smoking, drinking, and sex, suicide, and dangerous pranks; however, no content is gratuitous. The primary theme is the passion of a youthful spirit. It is summed up in the last passage of the novel.
“Awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be . . . We [teenagers] think that we are invincible because we are.  They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

How I Live Now, Printz Award, 2005

The story of How I Live Now is fast-paced, unusual, and engrossing. It’s a perfect blend of love story and survival story. Expert handling of voice, character, and setting make Daisy’s journey completely believable amidst incredible circumstances.

The primary part of the novel is written in continuous prose style, without normal punctuation, a style which is very difficult for some readers, but can create a spell-binding effect of actually being inside Daisy’s head. Daisy later explains her unconventional writing as grief stricken ramblings because she “refused to relinquish a single detail of the past.” Her voice is sometimes devastatingly sad and sometimes quite humorous. Daisy’s teenage mind flawlessly blends the two as a way of allowing both herself and the reader to cope. One of my favorite examples of this is in chapter 28. “We couldn’t go on. We went on. Staying alive was what we did to pass the time. . . . I was thinking of approaching my old school the next time we were in New York and telling them to replace the unit on Media Communications with one on How to Survive Half Dead in the Wilderness without Much in the Way of Hope.”

The setting of a vague current war is frankly terrifying to me. Some readers won’t abide the lack of specific details about this war, but the lack of detail is authentic and understandable. Rosoff merely asks us to imagine what life would be like if an organized terrorist group were to attack both Britain and the U.S. and cut off all normal communication like phone and internet. People would be confused, to say the least. Many would not even know who the real enemy was. Transport systems for medicine, food, and gasoline would fail. Hospitals would be dedicated only to war injuries. People would organize militia groups to fight back. Drafting and quartering acts would be expected. When the enemy is defeated, people would debate about what exactly started the war in the first place, throwing out ideas like “oil, money, land, sanctions, democracy.” The vagueness of this war is not at all a weakness of the story; it provides a strong emotion-laden setting.

Although Daisy is really the only developing character in the story, the others are by no means boring. Piper is angelic, innocent, trusting, and she can talk to animals. Her weakness serves as the catalyst for Piper’s growth. Edmund is a 14-year-old smoker with scraggly hair and puppy-dog eyes. He’s intelligent and sensitive. He has some kind of telepathic ability that allows him to hear people’s thoughts. He serves as motivation for Daisy’s journey. Daisy gradually grows from a selfish, insecure, anorexic teen bent on punishing herself and her family into a brave young woman who fights to protect the safety and innocence of Piper, to survive the threats of the wilderness and war, and to love Edmund despite his damage.

In spite of numerous negative reader reviews concerning the “cousin issue,” I didn’t personally find it to be a problem. A relationship with a first cousin is not morally wrong, or incestuous; in this book, it’s not even gross (the cousins have never met each other before). It is a societal taboo, and Daisy recognizes that fact, pointing out that they can only get away with this behavior because adults aren’t around.

The only part of this book I didn’t like was the abrupt end to the first section. I would have appreciated knowing what Daisy thought as officers showed up at her door and carted her off to a plane bound for America. I wanted to know how she felt about being put in a hospital when she went back. I understand leaving a gap for the time she was actually in the hospital, but details leading to that point could have emphasized Daisy’s emotional state when she began writing her story.

Themes of How I Live Now include love, responsibility, control, hunger, lust, underage sex, anorexia, telepathy, war, and survival. The primary theme is survival for the sake of love. Survival in itself is never Daisy’s goal. When she lives in America and feels unloved, her self-punishment and demand for control work against her own survival. After she grows to love Edmund and Piper, and they love her, she uses base survival as a means to keep that love. She reminds us at the end of the book when discussing her love for Edmund that “Fighting back is what I’ve discovered I do best. . . . And that’s how I live now.”

The First Part Last, Printz Award, 2004

The First Part Last follows the relatively boring life of a teenage father. I say boring because all of Bobby’s actions and reactions are expected and understandable. His experiences even seem designed to be an “issue story,” a cautionary tale to teenagers about the dangers of unsafe sex. Need I emphasis how annoying those stories are to teen?

But Angela Johnson does something wonderful. She transforms a predictable, issue-heavy narrative into a vivid experience through her expert handling of voice, character, setting, and style. Booklist calls The First Part Last “poetry,” and I agree. The feel of reading it is more like reading a novel in verse than reading a novel. The narrative is clear, concise, and construed more to make an emotional impact than to spin a story.

Bobby’s voice is like we’re hearing a story he’s telling himself. His thoughts are often short, which makes him sound like a teenager. Sentence fragments emphasize his immaturity and eagerness in passages like this. “I spray black. Then red, mixed with some blue. The boy’s got to be paler. But no, maybe just some green all around him. Maybe just some more green. I’m losing wall now. It’s all got to come to an end soon.”

But the thoughts themselves are often deep and focused, which makes him seem mature. For instance, when Nia is about to break the big new, he notices a balloon. “Nia was waiting on our stoop for me with a red balloon. Just sittin’ there with a balloon looking all lost. I’ll never forget that look and how her voice shook when she said, ‘Bobby I’ve got something to tell you.’ Then she handed me the balloon.”

For Bobby, voice perfectly matches character. He’s alternately immature and mature, petty and deep, irresponsible and responsible. He loves basketball, video games, painting and pizza. He wants to have it easy sometimes. He’s scared of responsibility. He doesn’t trust his rich teacher or the rich families that could adopt his baby. When he finds out he’s a father, he wants to do the “right thing,” not just because his mom tells him too, but because he loves Nia and the baby that kicks inside her. The Then/Now sequence of the book, while confusing at first, falls into an understandable pattern, and serves to contrast Bobby’s former self and current self, as he grows from a carefree child into a responsible teen who puts the good of those he loves above his own.           

The setting of Manhattan is real, but not overbearing. The story could take place in any large city. We see Bobby’s world most often through the things he loves about his city. He says, “He loved the smell of it. Pizza on one corner, falafel and French pastries on the next . . . Couldn’t sleep without the ambulance noises and people calling to each other in the street who are just getting back from the clubs . . . He loved the sounds the kids made running to the subway, and cabs blowing by and screeching to a stop.” This passage, where Bobby takes on a third person voice to tell his own story, is particularly engaging because many of us do take a step back and think of the story of our lives when a difficult situation arises.

Themes of The First Part Last include teen pregnancy, parenting, love, grief, and sacrifice. The primary theme is accepting responsibility. Bobby’s initial decision to raise Feather may have been more emotional than rational. He says, “I don’t know anything about raising a kid. I’m sixteen and none of those people on the wall look like the kind of family me and Feather’s gonna be. But I’m doing it.” When the social worker protests, he responds, “But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine. And I’m hers.” He finally knows that his actions, his love, and his relationship to this child dictate the sacrificial responsibility it takes to raise a child instead of the selfish irresponsibility it take to give one away.

[Note: I do not believe putting a child up for adoption is always the selfish thing to do, but in Bobby's particular case it is. Bobby has a stable extended family and material resources to benefit the child. He and Nia do not choose to give the baby away for the baby's benefit, they do it for their own convenience, which is selfish.]

My favorite passage is the chapter where Bobby discovers Nia’s been taken to the hospital and then sees Feather for the first time. Angela Johnson perfectly captures the raw emotion of a boy running, screaming all the way to the hospital, and feeling like a child as he gives in to grief. She slows down her prose as she brings Feather to her father for the first time, giving the reader time to move from sadness to joy. Then as Bobby holds his three day old daughter who cried through the night, she sticks us with the theme in a way that feels absolutely right and natural. “I’m supposed to suck it up and do all the right things if I can, even if I screw it up and have to do it over.”