This past school year at the Cascade Township Branch, we offered a monthly teen book club in which teens could come and talk about whatever it was they were reading, watching or listening to. The group usually consisted of four to six teens along with me, the teen paraprofessional, eating donuts and talking about a wide range of topics. May was our last book club and without planning to, the group of six kids and I spent 90 minutes talking about the book and Netflix series 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
13 Reasons Why has been a highly controversial story since 2011 when it was first published. The story follows high school junior Clay Jensen, who one day finds a mysterious box on his front porch:
"Upon opening the box, he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a classmate and crush who had committed suicide a few weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are 13 reasons why she decided to end her life and Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why. Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a first-hand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town what he discovers changes his life forever." --Penguin Young Readers Group
The Netflix series hits the major content points of the book but instead of Clay listening to the tapes over the course of a night, he listens to the tapes over the course of weeks. The series adds a component of mental Illness to Clay’s character as well as shows the aftermath between Hannah Baker’s parents and school administrators, who are in a legal battle over the suicide. The series also becomes purposefully graphic when it comes to scenes containing sexual assault and Hannah’s suicide.
A book and hit series that depicts high school bullying, mental illness, sexual identity, stalking, sexual assault, and suicide certainly has the ingredients to create a controversy. Parent groups and psychologists went on morning news shows to warn parents of the dangers in allowing their children to watch the series. School districts and teachers mailed letters to parents about the show. The series was accused of glorifying suicide, if not exploiting it, in order to make the show more edgy. Health professionals have warned of the possibility of copycat teens committing or attempting to commit suicide. In opposition, the show-runners, including executive producers and pop singer Selena Gomez, argue that they are raising awareness to a sinister reality of what high school can mean for many students across America. I would argue both might be right.
Unpacking teen reactions to 13 Reasons Why
So when the last book club of the year happened at Cascade and one of the teens brought up that they were watching the series, the group of six teens each took turns talking about how they felt about the show and novel.
Below are my favorite quotes from the teens and how we unpacked their thoughts.
"I realized how the smallest things I did had the ability to either bring someone down or build them up."
I loved this statement and in our group, we talked about this idea of how everyone has a metaphorical backpack and how it’s filled with rocks or balloons. We talked about how we all have the ability to offer someone a balloon to carry with a compliment or encouragement and also how we have the ability to hand someone a rock by being disrespectful or uncaring.
"While watching the show I felt that suddenly I was looking around at other students in the halls wondering if they were going through the same things Hannah was going through.
I talked with this teen on how important it is to be able to pause and wonder what others are going through. If someone being rude maybe they have something that is weighing them down and this is the best they can do today. It’s looking at others through a different lens instead of how they are affecting you thinking about what it is that’s affecting them.
"I realized how alone Hannah was and how she had no one to talk to and I was sad to think that other teens might feel alone."
This was a beautiful statement to open the conversation about this idea of going at it alone. I talked with the teens about two things. First I told them about Aaron Ralston, the hiker who fell and had his arm pinned by a boulder. After a few days of being pinned by the boulder Aaron realized his only chance for survival was to cut his hand off with his pocket knife. It was an amazing story of survival and human perseverance and in a later interview he was asked what he did wrong. Aaron said “I was alone and no one knew where I was going.” I shared with the teens that it is important for them to make sure that they are not traveling through high school alone and that their friends know what they are going through.
The second thing I did was to ask the teens “How many legs does it take to sit on a stool?” Each teen gave me a number ranging from two to five and then one kids said “Well, technically you would only need one leg to sit on a stool but it’d be difficult.” My response was to say “You’re right, you really only need one leg to sit on a stool, but what happens if that leg breaks? You would come crashing down right? So if your life revolves around that relationship you’re in, or getting into that college, or making varsity, or having a 4.0 GPA and suddenly you fail and it’s gone, what happens? This is why it’s important to balance your life with sturdy legs such as family, friends, school, sports, clubs, faith, extracurricular activities as well as accomplishing goals that you’ve set for yourself so that when things don’t work out the way you want and of course some days they won’t, you’ve set up a support network to carry you through the bad times.”
"I felt like I could empathize with my classmates better and think through what they might be going through."
I love that this teen knew what empathy was and how they recognized this series as a chance to develop the ability to walk in other people shoes.
"This book and series glorifies suicide and it’s dumb. This whole idea that you can commit suicide and you’ll be remembered forever is dumb. People move on after high school and their lives grow and they experience a world beyond this and you will be forgotten…you will miss out on incredible things."
This teen was very passionate about the problem with a book and show like this and how it would lead to an increase of teen suicide. She also thought it made high school seem like it was way bigger that what it really is. I asked the group: How do you cover a controversial topic like teen suicide and not be exploitative? The group responded with different ideas but the consensus was that it seems exploitative for Netflix to order a second season and that it would be very complicated to make a series/book without being exploitative.
This was my favorite book club of the year and I ended it by encouraging my teens, reminding them that they are unique and they bring something wonderful to their families, friends, school and of course the library. That they need to make sure they don’t travel alone and that they have friends and family who know where they are going.
Takeaways for parents
As I’ve spent more time than I ever would thinking about this book and series, I have a few takeaways for parents. This book and series are a tool. It’s a tool for better understanding what high school can be like and offers a discussion starting point for a myriad of important topics. You can talk with your teen about consent, sexuality, suicide, bullying, stalking, and self-harm over the course of 13 episodes. However, it’s a dangerous tool and seems to come without much instruction or guidance. Netflix eventually added a 30-minute video to go through the issues, provided recommendations for those with mental illness to receive help and gave a number for a suicide hotline. It would have been nice to have had at least a five-minute decompression session at the end of each episode instead of teens being able to binge all the episodes without time to process what they just saw.
Personally, if my 1-year-old son was 12 to 17 years old, I would not want him watching this show. But if he decided to or he absolutely had to or I found out he watched it without my permission, I would let him know that we would be dedicating 13 nights to going through this series. Each night we would watch an episode and then spend an hour talking about it. This would be a commitment of 26 hours watching something that is painful to watch. Hannah’s story is heartbreaking and it’s every parent’s nightmare but it is also a reality for many parents and teens across America.
How you decide to move forward with this book and series is up to you but I would expect that when Netflix releases the second season sometime next year, this will become a controversial topic once again.