School officials in Mesa County, Colorado, recently decided to pull a young adult novel about teenage suicide from its district’s libraries after seven students took their own lives.
The novel in question, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, is also the basis for a new and popular Netflix series of the same name.
Upon being issued the order to remove the book from their school libraries, several librarians in the Mesa County school system protested that the Netflix series differs from the bestselling novel in its treatment of teenage suicide.
The order to remove the book from school libraries was canceled just a few hours after it was given by the same official who had issued it. Apparently, the change of heart came after her office actually read the novel.
"I think we were just being cautious until we had the opportunity to look at the book and see how closely related to the movie it was,” said Leigh Grasso, curriculum director for the Mesa County Valley School District. She revealed that her decision to reverse the order came after she had consulted counselors who concluded: “the book was not as graphic as the TV show.”
I admit I haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series. But I’ve read 13 Reasons Why, the novel. It’s terrific.
I’m not going to launch into a book report, and I don’t want to spout about why books are always better than movies, either. I am, however, considering making the novel required reading for my now seven-year-old daughter when she enters middle school.
How’s that for an endorsement?
Like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, 13 Reasons Why has a breakneck pace and engrossing story that keeps readers young and old turning pages.
Of the three, 13 Reasons Why offers young readers the most valuable perspective on teenage life. The alienation and isolation, common themes among teen dramas, is palpable in the text. The angst jumps from the page. The story is relatable because 13 Reasons Why isn’t set in a dystopia or fantasy. It’s set in the everyday world. The teens in Asher’s novel have real problems that can’t be solved with a magic wand or deft use of a bow and arrow.
In that sense, Asher’s characters and our own teens have a lot in common. The battle in 13 Reasons Why isn’t against vampires, or zombies, or a wicked totalitarian autocrat with comic book hair and a litany of clever catch-phrases. The struggle in Asher’s novel is about coming of age and holding on to your sanity in a world that’s long on hardship and short on mercy.
In spite of its poignant relevance, the novel is at the center of a controversy. School systems that should be praising 13 Reasons Why for its insight and accessibility are instead condemning it by making it inaccessible.
The real tragedy is the fact that some of the 13 Reason’s Why’s most boisterous naysayers haven’t even read it. At least one school system banned the novel not because of the way it treats teenage suicide, but for the way its adapted series on Netflix treats the subject.
It’s a big internet. Police-parenting your child’s experience of it is important, but trying to cover the whole field with one set of eyes is—as Stephen King would say—a mug’s game. That’s why Netflix has parental controls. Policing the shelves of a school library is also necessary and an endeavor parents, for the most part, trust the powers that be to faithfully execute.
When it comes to schools telling our kids which books they can and can’t read, I for one hope those issuing the decree have at least read the book in question and aren’t making judgments based on whatever liberties Netflix has taken in its adaptation of the original text.
Fred Smith was born in the 70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the 80s, played drums in bands in the 90s, and became a husband and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.