By: Cathy Collins
The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been the center of controversy since it was released in March. Graphic depictions of rape and suicide have re-triggered a censorship debate stretching back to the book’s publication.
Jay Asher’s novel was first published 10 years ago. The book tells the story of high school student Hannah Baker, who kills herself and leaves behind a box of 13 cassette tapes that detail the reasons for her suicide and call out the people she holds responsible.
Harassment and sexual assault are a focus of the book. When Asher wrote the scene in which one male character, Bryce, rapes Hannah, he had high school boys in mind as part of his audience.
“I wanted guys to be uncomfortable when they read it, and both the book and the TV show made a point of noting that Hannah never says no,” Asher told Buzzfeed News. “Because that’s what we always hear, right? ‘When a girl says no, she means no.’ But there are plenty of times when a girl’s afraid to say no for various reasons, and it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, as long as they don’t say no, then everything’s fair game.’ You need to be a better person than that.”
On the other side of the argument for detailed and graphic description are professionals in the mental health and education fields who feel that suicide is glamorized through the book and series, possibly leading vulnerable teens to make harmful choices as a result of reading or viewing.
One Canadian school even took the extreme step of banning all mention of the series on school grounds, claiming that the show not only glamorized suicidal behavior but also portrayed helping professionals in a negative light.
Asher said that ultimately, he and his publishing house decided that the discomfort in viewing/reading leads to a deeper understanding and awareness of the difficult subjects tackled in the material.
In reference to the series, Asher told Buzzfeed News, “I’ve heard from so many people who identify with Hannah’s character and they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve felt that way, I’ve had this happen. There’s this stress that is relieved when you realize somebody understands, and that’s only going to happen if you feel the person who’s writing the book or the people in the TV show aren’t holding back.”
The YA book was the third most-challenged book in 2012, according to the American Library Association.
When Asher is approached by librarians, educators and others fighting censorship of his book, he shares emails from readers expressing what they gained from reading the book.
“Having spoken to thousands of teens since my book came out, I even more firmly believe that books dealing with these issues need to be written as emotionally honest as possible. Not only is it appropriate, it’s responsible,” Asher told CNN in 2013. “If people are dealing with it, we need to talk about it. Otherwise, we contribute to the main reason people don’t reach out for help. I consistently hear readers say my book was the first time they felt understood, which is sad. I’m sure many people around them would understand. If my book proves that there are people who get what they’re going through, I’m honored. The very day I found out ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ was the third most challenged book, I received an e-mail from from a reader claiming my book kept her from committing suicide. I dare any censor to tell that girl it was inappropriate for her to read my book. If a parent feels their child shouldn’t read a book, that’s their prerogative.”
Most recently, a school district official in Colorado ordered the book removed from school libraries.
“Due to recent events and media attention on the Netflix movie 13 Reasons Why, I am going to have this book temporarily removed from any kind of check out,” wrote Leigh Grasso, the district’s executive director of academic achievement and growth, in an email sent to librarians on April 28.
Some of the district’s librarians responded that they didn’t feel the action was appropriate, and they cited differences between the Netflix series and the book in their responses. Librarians also cited the book’s value as a bridge to conversations about the difficult topic.
Cathy Collins has worked as a media specialist/librarian for 15 years. She is currently a library media specialist at Sharon High School, where she has worked for the past five years. She began her career as a reporter who covered business, arts and education-related issues. She received a “Teachers for Global Classrooms” fellowship from the U.S. State Dept. in 2014 and is the recipient of AASL’s Intellectual Freedom Award (2014). She was named an MSLA “Super Librarian” in 2014, and earned National Board Certification as a Library/Media Teacher in 2009. She received the HNA “Teacher of the Year” award in 2015 for excellence in teaching about China. In her spare time, she enjoys nature walks, reading, world travel and yoga. Find her on Twitter @TechGypsy11.