‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ author to visit

Bestselling author Jay Asher will visit the Columbia County Library at 4 p.m. Sunday to discuss his three novels.

 

His 2007 debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, focuses on a teenager, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves a series of cassette tapes pointing to the people and circumstances behind her decision to end her life.

The book has sold more than 2 million copies and was on the New York Times Bestsellers list. The book deals with a variety of topics in addition to suicide. It includes bullying, date rape, drunk driving and adult apathy.

“Books that tackle hard topics can be a great way to have hard conversations in a more natural way,” Natalie Gibson, a librarian with the Columbia County Library who coordinates author visits, wrote in an email in response to an interview request.

Although a decade old, the book has come back into focus recently after Netflix released a series, 13 Reasons Why, based on Asher’s novel. The series has stirred a lot of controversy.

Dee Alton, a Grovetown High School English teacher and mother of four who range in age from 14 to 24, said literature often does address hard topics with a purpose behind it.

“The point of literature is to help people to have empathy for others,” she said. “We’re supposed to be able to find ourselves in books and realize we’re not alone.”

Books and film adaptations are often different, and this is the case with Asher’s book.

In the book, Hannah’s friend, Clay, listens to the tapes and reaches out to another person who he thinks may be thinking of committing suicide. However, many feel the series does not adequately provide answers or resources to assist teens considering suicide, and many even feel it glorifies suicide.

“It makes suicide seem like a normal event, and it romanticizes it,” said Alton.

One major difference in the book and the Netflix series is Hannah’s actual suicide. In the book, she overdoses, but in the series, there’s a graphic scene of her slashing her wrists.

Tammy Westafer, the mother of a 12-year-old and a former high school educator who now works in Augusta University’s library, said she will not allow her daughter to watch the series. She watched it because she is interested in teenagers and was curious about it.

“Suicide is not pretty. There’s nothing worse for a parent,” Westafer said.

The brutal scene of Hannah’s death is unsettling in many ways, she said.

“She looked pretty while she was dying,” said Westafer. “It glamorizes it. Kids don’t have the reality of what it really means.”

People in other parts of the country have also criticized the series saying that it misses in places where the book does not.

Elizabeth Deichler, an English teacher at Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif., where part of the series was filmed, was quoted in a Los Angeles Times’ article.

“Because the book talks about bullying and trying to fit in, it felt like a very freshman book to me. Before we started reading it in class, I sent a letter to parents saying, ‘I’m going to be teaching this book which deals with teen suicide, bullying and date rape if you have any concerns.’ Only one parent responded,” Deichler was quoted as saying.

“So when the show came out, all the students wanted to watch it. I watched it too, but after the first episode, I couldn’t get through the rest of the series. They had altered characters so much that it didn’t feel like the same themes were being presented,” she continued.

Others think that the series can be harmful to those who may already be in a fragile mental state and that it could inspire copycat suicides.

Alton said she understands that well. She likened it to real life events she saw when she was in high school. There were about seven suicides all in one year. Some were likely copycat suicides.

“Children saw this huge outpouring of sympathy, but what they didn’t realize was they weren’t going to be there to get the outpouring,” she said.

Those who craved the attention and possibly used the attempt as a cry for help couldn’t get the help and love they wanted because it was too late.

Earlier this month, several news outlets reported a 23-year-old Peruvian engineer, Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano, jumped from his fourth story apartment and left behind a series of tapes. The link between his suicide and the series has not been established although the pattern is similar.

Alton said she believes in having an open dialogue with her children, and if her youngest had expressed an interest, she would’ve allowed him to watch it with her.

He wasn’t interested. She knows that many teens and even younger children have watched it, but what concerns her most is who has been there to watch it with them and discuss the serious issues it brings up.

Asher did not respond to interview requests from The Chronicle.

REACTIONS TO ‘13 REASONS WHY’

Teenagers have tweeted more about the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why – the television series about a 17-year-old girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio tapes explaining what, and who, led her to do it – than any other program this year.

Since 13 Reasons Why debuted March 31, school districts across the country have sent letters home advising parents that their kids maybe watching a show that some mental health experts argue glamorizes suicide.

Because of graphic depictions of suicide, rape, bullying, slut shaming and drunk driving, the National Assn. of School Psychologists has recommended “that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation,” not view the series. Some teenagers and parents affected by mental illness have petitioned Netflix to remove the series.

Netflix responded by adding a new graphic-content warning before the series’ first episode. Its creator, Brian Yorkey, tread lightly when asked about the controversy: “I have tremendous respect for everyone’s point of view,” he said. “I always believe talking about things is better than silence.”

The Los Angeles Times reached out to educators to find out how the show was being discussed in real life – in the classrooms and hallways of schools across America.

Jack VanNoord

seventh-grade literature and language arts teacher at Lake Zurich Middle School South in Lake Zurich, Ill.

VanNoord was flipping through Netflix when he found “13 Reasons Why.” He started watching at 7 p.m. and finished the series at 5:30 a.m. He found the show compelling but problematic and wrote an op-ed about the show.

“There are positive messages out of the show: Don’t be a bully. Reach out to those you feel are hurting. But there’s also an unintended message: the potential positive outcomes of your suicide. You can make people who hurt you hurt. You can take the responsibility for your death and lay it at the feet of other people. Your voice can be heard in death when it’s not heard in life. I wanted to write about whether or not those positives inadvertently overshadow the negatives.

“A colleague overheard some students talking about my column. I could tell she was being coy, so I said, ‘They didn’t have super-favorable things to say about it?’ She said, ‘No, they kind of disagree with you.’

“It didn’t really generate a lot of discussion in the class. It kind of reminds me of the sex-ed talk. ‘OK, gee, Dad.’ Eye roll. ‘I’m not gonna go out and get pregnant because I saw a movie!’”

Mary Czajkowski

Superintendent of Lexington Public Schools in Lexington, Mass.

There have been two student suicides in the last year in Czajkowski’s school district. So when parents voiced concern about “13 Reasons Why,” she talked with mental health experts and wrote to parents “strongly advising” them not to let their children watch the show.

“It was disturbing that there wasn’t a whole lot of support or resources surrounding the series. I think about the student who might be watching that up in their room on their iPad and having no one to speak with about it. So I wanted to open a dialogue.

“I think it was important for me to take a position. Other superintendents were doing the same. I’ve received positive feedback from parents thanking me for making them aware of the show.

“There have been mixed reactions from students. I think they try to avoid the topic with me, although I have had some say to me, ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s really kind of stupid.’ It’s been mixed, but in this day and age, we have to be proactive.”

Chase Mielke

English and psychology teacher at Plainwell High School in Plainwell, Mich.

Over spring break, Mielke and his wife watched “13 Reasons Why” and finished the series feeling unsettled. So he wrote a blog post on WeAreTeachers, an online community for educators, encouraging fellow teachers to discuss the show with their students.

“A lot of kids who had seen it were really focusing on the positive message — ‘I realize that even the little things I do can affect people, and I think I’m more conscious of my behavior now.’ But when I would follow up, asking them what they could do as a positive action, a lot of them said they weren’t sure. So we decided to host an event that any kid at the school could attend.

“The thing, I think, that concerned us most from the series was that most kids are already relatively reluctant to share anything with adults. And the series made adults look oblivious, or antagonistic.

“So we shared as much information as we could, and said, ‘You don’t have to talk to a teacher. You can contact a peer. And these are the signs when immediate attention is needed and you should call the police.’

“The event was not that well-attended. It coincided with testing season. I’d polled my classes, and about 90 out of 120 students had seen the show.

“That’s the double-edged sword — people are talking about it, so there’s curiosity. A lot of them have said to me, ‘I don’t know if I should watch it,’ and if I’m aware of their challenges or depression, I’ll say, ‘It’s definitely not worth it. You shouldn’t subject yourself to this.’”

Dr. Denise Herrmann

Principal at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto

Over the last seven years, there have been 10 teen suicides in Palo Alto — a rate four to five times higher than the national average. In 2015 alone, four students at Gunn took their lives — so when “13 Reasons Why” was released, Herrmann was prepared.

“I knew many students were going to binge-watch it — and that it would be quite the hot topic. In general, our students really do not roll their eyes and say, ‘It’s just a TV show’ when talking about mental health issues because we’re a school that has experienced suicide. We don’t take it lightly.

“It is a television drama, so there are parts that were inaccurate in terms of legally and socially how a school should respond — but there’s no judgment there, because every school is different in terms of how you respond to a tragedy.

Yes, we have had experience with this, but we weren’t reliving it. I would never endorse banning students from watching the show.

“We have been working very hard on trying to reduce the stigma of any kind of adolescent mental health issue. If we in any way say that the show is not OK to talk about, that might inadvertently be sending a message that it’s not OK to talk about feeling sad or suicide.

“The timing of the release is very interesting. It came out right before students were receiving their college acceptance letters and doing AP testing, so there’s in general a heightened sense of anxiety on high school campuses across the nation. It’s not surprising that students might be finding comfort, almost, in it.”

AUTHOR VISIT

Who: Jay Asher, “Thirteen Reasons Why”

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, June 18

Where: Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, Evans

Details: Asher’s debut novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” was recently adapted as a critically acclaimed Netflix series. Asher will speak, answer questions, and sign autographs; free, but please RSVP at 13reasonswhy.eventbrite.com; (706) 863-1946 ext. 4

LEARN MORE

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) has a downloadable resource for discussing “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series adapted from the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Find it online at https://www.save.org/13-reasons-why/.

LEARN MORE

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) has a downloadable resource for discussing “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series adapted from the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Find it online at https://www.save.org/13-reasons-why/.

 

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