Despite first being published ten years ago, Jay Asher's breakout novel 13 Reasons Why has drawn controversy once again following the success of a Netflix TV adaptation, which certain quarters fear has inspired a wave of teen suicides similar to that of Hannah Baker.
13 Reasons Why Banned Following A String Of Teen Suicides
Following accusations that the show glamorizes teen suicide in potentially harmful ways, a school district official in Colorado has briefly banned 13 Reasons Why from libraries in the area.
Defending her actions, curriculum director of Mesa County Valley Leigh Grasso explained that:
"It would be hard for anybody who has dealt with suicide to not have a heightened awareness of things, to perhaps be a little more cautious about things."
The decision to withdraw 13 Reasons Why from the Mesa County Valley School District follows a number of teen suicides in the area, although The Hollywood Reporter states that these occurred before the TV adaptation aired. There's currently no evidence to suggest that there is any link between the story of 13 Reasons Why and these tragic events, leading many librarians in the area to call out Grasso's actions on the grounds of censorship and free speech.
The Ban Was Only Temporary, But Should It Have Happened At All?
Grasso cited media attention revolving around the book as the main reason why she censored 13 Reasons Why, despite the fact she has never read the novel or watched the show herself. However, following several protests, the order to recall Jay Asher's book was rescinded just three hours later. Reportedly, Grasso's decision was counteracted after librarians and school counselors determined that the book didn't contain the kind of graphic suicide scenes that were depicted in the Netflix show.
Grasso argues that her actions did not amount to censorship, as the book was only removed from shelves temporarily:
"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."
This isn't the first time that 13 Reasons Why has been banned or drawn controversy. Recently, a school district in Minnesota also recalled the book for a brief period of time, although this was due to the story's sexual references rather than any allusion to teen suicide.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, suggested that there's nothing inherently wrong with Grasso's decision to review the book. It's the way she went about it that should be challenged. The ALA director wisely summarized:
"People have been writing about suicide because it happens. It doesn’t happen because people write about it."
13 Reasons Why Isn't The First Teen Book To Be Censored By Schools
Grasso's decision has been criticized from a number of quarters, all of whom worry that censorship without regulation sends us down a dangerous path. Unfortunately though, this isn't the first time that schools have tried to ban books on controversial grounds and it won't be the last. Here are just a few examples of books that have been brought to the attention of the ALA in recent years.
1) Persepolis (2004), by Marjane Satrapi
Despite being widely acclaimed and adapted into an animation that was nominated for an Oscar, Satrapi’s Iranian memoir has been challenged and even banned for its use of offensive language and a strong political viewpoint.
2) And Tango Makes Three (2005), by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Based on the true story of two male penguins who raised a baby penguin together, this charming picture book has been called out numerous times for its homosexual (and therefore "anti-family") sentiment.
3) The Kite Runner (2003), by Khaled Hosseini
Set against the political struggles of Afghanistan in the '70s, this story of friendship has been challenged for the violence depicted, alongside use of offensive language.
4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1990), by Stephen Chbosky
Despite speaking specifically to teen readers, this story of an introverted high school student was deemed as controversial on a number of issues, including the book's depiction of drugs, homosexuality and masturbation.
5) Saga (2012), by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
This epic series of sci-fi graphic novels has received both acclaim and criticism for its depiction of two straight soldiers who raise a daughter together, presumably because of "anti-family" sentiments and the occassional nudity on display.
What Does Banning Books Achieve?
The aforementioned books are just a handful of the stories that American schools have tried (and in some cases, succeeded) to ban from their libraries — and we didn't even have space to mention banned classics such as Catcher In The Rye or Moby Dick in more detail.
At the end of the day, the practice of banning books rarely achieves what the censor set out to do. Sure, there is something to be said for ensuring that children read age-appropriate literature, but often, censorship of this nature simply serves to increase interest in these particular titles, all while depriving students of important life lessons that could actually do more good than harm.
A few years before the #Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why recently ignited controversy, author Jay Asher was forced to defend his work during an interview with CNN, where he revealed that:
“The very day I found out ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ was the third most-challenged book, I received an e-mail 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.”
Despite the protestation of mental health professionals and concerned parents nationwide, it seems as though there's far more going on here than teenagers simply using 13 Reasons Why as an introduction to suicide 101. Had the show runners decided to follow Jay Asher's alternate ending and allowed Hannah to live, the impact of the show might have been lost.
Instead of banning the show or the book in a knee-jerk reaction, those worried by the influence of #13ReasonsWhy should instead work towards educating and helping those potentially affected by the issues raised. Problematic promotion aside, enlightened and constructive discussion around topics raised by the show such as suicide and rape can only be a good thing for those who need help.