If you’ve been browsing in Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million, you’ve seen displays promoting books by teen lit author John Green that you may have dismissed as being outside your interests or demographic. However, teen lit or Young Adult literature has come a long way from when the choices were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. This now fully-developed genre has brought us some wildly popular themes, including the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games – incidentally, written by Suzanne Collins, another author with Birmingham ties as a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
But back to John Green. Green is an Orlando native who attended Indian Springs School and chose the school campus as the setting for his first novel, Looking for Alaska. Although he calls the school “Culver Creek” in his book, as a local you will recognize references to I-65, Mountain Brook, the Coosa Mart, Pelham Police, and Montevallo, and others. You’ll see the distinctions between the Weekday Warriors (commuters, disparaged as rich and spoiled) and the scholarship kids who board, often without a car for a campus escape.
The fun is in figuring out which local schools Green references as basketball opponents, like the deaf-and-blind school, the Christian academy, and the private school in Mountain Brook where the kids are rich but “too stupid to get into Creek”, according to one of the more colorful characters. Ouch.
Even without any references, we would have known John Green had spent time in Alabama based on this vivid description of our summer weather (and remember – this is from a boy raised in Orlando, the place the rest of us pay admission to stand in line in the heat):
“This did not prepare me for the unique sort of heat that one encounters fifteen miles south of Birmingham Alabama, at Culver Creek Preparatory School. My parents’ SUV was parked in the grass just a few feet outside my dorm room, Room 43. But each time I took those few steps to and from the car to unload what now seemed like far too much stuff, the sun burned through my clothes and into my skin with a vicious ferocity that made me genuinely fear hellfire.”
As a word of warning, this is a pretty adult novel to be written for teens. There is smoking, drinking, foul language and (what’s left?) reference to sex. I could have enjoyed Looking for Alaska much more had I not found myself thinking the whole time of the young teen who had just read it. Had some of her innocence been lost? Was this any different than a PG-13 movie, where the same action would simply have flashed across the screen rather than stared back in an unmoving solid black font?
Pause: Does anyone remember Forever, the Judy Blume book that was considered scandalous and yet was one of the only sources of a teen perspective back in the day? Heck, it was downright informational in comparison to the forced birds and bees discussions with parents and teachers. When you watch Breakfast Club now, do you find yourself appalled as a parent? And how about your parents’ old classics, like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or “Splendor in the Grass,” which you now realize implied much more worldly knowledge than you caught the first time you watched them?
My larger point here is that John Green is a big deal, internationally best selling author who found education and inspiration in our area within our familiar landscape. If you enjoy a well-written story from any perspective – teen or otherwise – his books are fascinating and provocative.
UPDATE: Tour Indian Springs yourself with John Green as your host. He’s still talking about the humidity – how well we understand! If you’ve read the book, it has special significance to see the actual SWAN. And the smoking hole. If you’ll allow me a mom observation, I’m glad to see the Smoking Hole is getting overgrown, perhaps a sign of less smoking these days (can’t kids hang out without having to smoke?). And for book club discussion, could Looking for Alaska have happened without the common bond of smoking and its use as a metaphor for rebellion?
Finally, John Green, I appreciate and understand your nostalgia upon visiting your alma mater. Just wait till you have kids of your own to start mocking how you used a pay phone (what’s that?) to call home once a week. You will find yourself telling your kids that your little high-school inspired story is what is putting shoes on their feet, so there! And they may find themselves off at a boarding school in a hot, humid Alabama town one day.