By Guest Blogger Laura Simon
If you have a teen – or even a preteen – you’ve likely heard of a new Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why. The series, like the book by Jay Asher on which it’s based, follows the suicide of a teenage girl named Hannah. Before her death, she creates a series of tapes to be delivered to people in her life who wronged her in some way, whether intentionally or not. These tapes are more than just her reasons for committing suicide; they are effectively a form of posthumous revenge.
I confess that I haven’t watched the series, in part because we don’t have Netflix. (I know…how DO we live?) But I did read the book when it came out in 2011. While I’m a little old for the target audience, I taught middle and high school English for 14 years, and I considered it part of my job to read young adult literature. Through the years, more than a few students stayed after school to process what they were reading on their own time. Those conversations gave me a valuable glimpse into the teenage mind.
YA lit is by nature a little bit- or a lot – racy. These are books designed to appeal to tweens and teens, who thrive on drama. Typically, YA novels walk a fine line between being relevant and believable while also offering content that exaggerates the reality of teenage life. 13 Reasons Why is no exception. It explores issues that are very much a part of high school – and even middle school – reality, things like social media bullying, slut shaming, gossip, rape, and the feeling that no one really cares. It is a fast-paced, well-written book, and I’ll confess I was drawn in. As an adult, I read it with a grain of salt. Your average teen might face a some of these issues in high school, but not all of them, all at once. It’s fiction, after all. But what bothered me as I read it, and even more as I talked about it with my students, was the use of suicide as an insidious weapon for revenge.
Teenage suicide – and attempted suicide – is on the rise. Many experts call it epidemic. There are myriad reasons for this, but what scares me most is the adolescent perspective on suicide. Kids today view it as something almost unavoidable, something that just happens when life gets hard. When I was a teenager, a childhood friend’s father committed suicide. It sent shock waves through our community and people were broken-hearted, but there was very little talk about his death. My parents had a whispered conversation with me to the effect that his death was a very permanent solution to a temporary problem. And then no one spoke about it again. I certainly don’t support returning to this type of secrecy, but it feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Now when a teenager commits suicide, people make t-shirts, everyone wears his or her favorite color, and the school newspaper publishes tributes. In a culture obsessed with attention, it is hard to miss how much attention you can get by ending your life. We’ve become a culture that inadvertently glorifies suicide. 13 Reasons Why is the ultimate example of this. The point most teens will miss is that Hannah doesn’t get to enjoy a single bit of that attention. That’s right, because she’s dead. As readers, we enjoy seeing her enemies get what’s coming to them, but her enemies are still alive. They’ll get a second chance, a new day. Hannah will not. Teens do not grasp this in the same way we, as adults, do.
I’m not typically a fan of censoring reading material, but I do think we need to help our children make good choices. When you talk to a tween or teen, it’s easy to forget that their brains aren’t fully developed. And it’s also easy to forget that they possess a remarkable capacity for denial and often think they’re invincible. They talk about how awful it is to drink and drive and then go do it themselves. They truly believe they are different, a special exception to the rule.
What teens struggle to understand is just how quickly life can change. When they get grounded for a bad grade, they truly think the world is over forever. When a girl breaks up with her boyfriend, she really thinks she’ll be the crazy cat lady for the rest of her life. When you pair this lack of perspective with a culture that holds suicide out as a viable option, you get tragedy. They may not seem like they are listening, but our teens need us to speak truth to them until they begin to grasp it. They need to hear our stories of how life changed on a dime, of how different things can be in a week, a month, or a year. Even Hannah, in spite of what was happening in her life, would have found life far different had she given it a few more months. But without our guidance, the teenage psyche simply can’t see that far.
Due to all of this, 13 Reasons Why will not be on the bookshelves or TV in my home. I just don’t see the benefit in giving kids an example they shouldn’t follow. Even if they can articulate why Hannah’s choices were tragic, the option will stick in their minds.
Those who disagree with me may say that I am sheltering my children, or missing a great opportunity to open a window of discussion on these topics, but the truth is that there are good alternatives to 13 Reasons Why, alternatives that depict characters facing adversity head on. For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak has a main character who faces many of the same struggles as Hannah. She doesn’t do everything right in her journey to healing, but in the end, she learns to fight for herself and her life begins to transform. That’s the message I want my teens to hear: pursue healing, face the truth, fight for yourself, stick with it until you see changes…because you will. My students also devoured a memoir called The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. While technically an adult book, it is engaging and entertaining to all ages. Walls manages to tell the story of almost unfathomably awful childhood and teenage years without falling prey to bitterness.
Whatever you decide, please keep having conversations with your kids. Schedule a regular time to listen to them talk, and make sure they know they can talk to you about anything. Be prepared to be shocked and horrified without acting too shocked and horrified. Yes, teens might be sulky and temperamental, but they desperately want a safe relationship with their parents. At the end of the day, you – and not a book or Netfix – get to shape your child’s worldview. Thank goodness.
One last bit of advice – be sure to ask your child whether or not he/she has read the book or watched the series already. Many parents who were not planning to allow this in their home have quickly come to discover that their child (some as young as 11 or 12) has already devoured the book and/or the series. If this happens to be the case, I urge you to read it or watch it with your child and have conversations throughout.
We received two fabulous resources from local counselors, who also noted that a large problem with the 13 Reasons Why book and series is that it overlooks big issues such as mental health problems that can be treated, and the fact that Hannah never reaches out for help. Consider these links…
- Talking Points for you and your child.
- This link which is titled “Guidance for Educators,” but actually includes terrific facts for everyone and also guidance tips for families.
What about you? Are you letting your teens or preteens read or tune in to 13 Reasons Why? I’ve read and heard so many valid, thought-provoking perspectives on this particular title; each one challenges me to think about my own parenting decisions. I’d love to hear where you’re coming from on this one.