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An Invitation Into Other Lives

How John Green’s Looking for Alaska contributes to the Banned Books narrative.

October 1 kicked off the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Banned Books Week, which began in 1982 in response to a rising number of book challenges in public and educational spaces. The weeklong event has grown exponentially through the years, aiming to combat censorship and promote the value of open access to freedom of expression. The ALA is offering a plethora of events throughout the week to provide education and awareness of book banning including library displays and author panels.

This year, author John Green has taken the spotlight for his active pushback against an increase of challenges on his popular book Looking for Alaska.

Written in 2005, Looking for Alaska is a young adult, coming-of-age story detailing the adventures of Miles Halter as he transitions into a new life at an Alabama boarding school. Including themes of hope and grief, the novel explores the trials and tribulations of loss and youth. Alaska was first challenged in 2008 for its sexual content and explicit language. In 2015, it was the most challenged book of the year. Last year, it was tied with Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower for fifth place on the 13 Most Challenged Books of 2022. Common challenges of Alaska include its inclusion of pornography, homosexuality, explicit language and unsuitable religious viewpoints.

Author John Green has expressed immense disappointment at his book’s challenges. Known as a bestelling author, creator of YouTube channel Vlogbrothers with his brother Hank, cofounder of educational resource Crash Course and, most recently, for his successful advocacy for more affordable tuberculosis drugs, Green has gained a large audience—deemed “Nerdfighters”—throughout the past two decades in which he broadcasts his active opposition to book banning. After Alaska was named the most challenged book of 2015, Green stated in a Vlogbrothers video, “I believe books challenge and interrogate; they give us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so we can better see ourselves.”

In a 2022 Vlogbrothers video about book banning, he also says, “I believe that just standing there, without judgement, stories can proclaim the full humanity of their characters, and in doing so can help us see the humanity within ourselves. But just as importantly, stories also invite us into other lives. They help each of us to understand the richness and complexity of people who aren’t like us.”

While there is much to be taken from Green’s work and words, it is most important this week to reflect on the power of humanity within literature as well as the great risk of losing it. Alaska’s focal point is the universal experiences of youth and grief and revoking access to one conveyance of such experiences takes away a valuable resource for readers, especially young adults, to gain insight into important facets of humanity.

Much is the same for other challenged Southern novels, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. You can find a comprehensive list of banned and challenged books on the ALA site.

If you wish to participate in this year’s festivities, you can find a list of events on this year’s Banned Books Week website.

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