By: Rebecca Slocum
Today is Jay Asher’s 43rd birthday. Asher was born September 30, 1975 in Arcadia, California. He attended school at Cuest Community College and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before he dropped out his senior year to pursue writing as a career.
You’ve probably heard of Jay Asher in the last couple of years, or at least, heard of his 2007 debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. It was featured on the New York Times bestseller list, as well as listed on several lists for best YA books. In 2017, the book exploded in popularity again when Netflix adapted it for TV, with Selena Gomez as one of the executive producers.
I first came across Asher and Thirteen Reasons Why during a children’s literature course in grad school. Each week, we were required to read a certain number of books in a particular category: Newberry winners, various genres, non-fiction, poetry, ect. One of the categories was banned books. Naturally, I was looking forward to that one because, well, the word banned just adds that extra sense of excitement to it, right? Most of my book selections for that course depended on what my local library had at the time; that week, it was Thirteen Reasons Why.
If you haven’t read it or seen the TV series, the story is about Clay Jensen, a high school student, who comes home one day to find a package containing several cassette tapes recorded by a classmate, Hannah Baker, who committed suicide two weeks before. As he listens through the cassettes, Hannah reveals 13 reasons, and 13 people, behind her decision to end her life. Clay is one of those reasons, and he must listen through all of the tapes to find out why.
Intense, right? I was hooked from the first page. At the time, I was also teaching high school. Fellow educators, you can attest that teenagers mostly ignore the existence of adults unless we are directly conversing with them (and sometimes not even then.) I would often overhear students trading malicious gossip; rumors and stories that would make me cringe for the students involved. As I followed Clay’s journey of listening through Hannah’s tapes, each of her reasons reminded me of the teenagers in my classes. Bullying, rape, unrequited love, unexplored teen crushes, drugs, alcohol. These are all real and devastating issues that children face, both in and out of school. Thirteen Reasons Why takes a frank and unapologetic look at how the way we treat people can have serious, and in Hannah’s case, irreversible consequences. It is no exaggeration to say that five years later, this book and its message still sits with me.
Since I pulled this title from a list involving banned books, I’m sure you’ve deduced by now that Thirteen Reasons Why has been challenged or removed from a collection. I’m sure you can also deduce why: its heavy subject matter is often a concern for parents. In 2017, the book was removed from the shelves in Mesa County Valley School District following the tragic suicides of seven students. School administrators expressed concerned that the book (and TV show) glorified suicide, making death a romantic concept and the subsequent notoriety amongst peers glamorous. In Ontario, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board pulled the book from school libraries for “depicting negative portrayals of helping professionals” due to the guidance counselor’s role in Hannah’s decision. Upon the release of the Netflix series, many schools sent out warning letters to parents to be aware of the show’s dark subject matter; one school in Edmonton, Alberta even banned discussion of the book or show anywhere on campus.
I certainly won’t argue that Thirteen Reasons Why depicts some brutal topics; suicide is tragic and should always be portrayed carefully and responsibly. However, as with any banned book, it’s these books that make us uncomfortable, that cause us to dig deep and think about ourselves and about the people around us feel, that are most important to be widely available. A book like Thirteen Reasons Why opens the door for conversations: child to parent and student to teacher. Removing these titles or banning any mention of them sends the message that suicide and the factors that can lead to it, such as a debilitating mental illness; bullying and child cruelty; or drug and alcohol abuse, should not be discussed or reported. That is a dangerous message, and it does not help anyone.
Books often act as mirrors and windows for the world around us: they help us to understand our own feelings and validate our own experiences (mirrors) or open our eyes to the experiences of those around us (windows). In an interview with PBS Newshour, Asher himself said,
“I never understood the power of having books written about your experience — whatever that experience may be — until I wrote one and started hearing from teens.”
To me, that quote highlights the dangers of censorship. Removing a book from the shelf removes the opportunity for that book to help someone, child or adult, to feel seen and understood. Asher went on to extend his thoughts on censorship:
“A book shouldn’t be anybody’s first time feeling understood and that’s where censorship bothers me. These books need to be out there.”
I agree. Happy Birthday, Jay Asher!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.