I had planned on doing a lighthearted blog this week. However given the controversy surrounding the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” I felt I should address this subject as a children’s book specialist, and a parent of a teen who has threatened suicide.
If you haven’t heard the fracas surrounding this new series then you must be living under a rock. The book and series is about high school girl Hannah Baker. She kills herself and leaves behind 13 audio tapes naming 13 people and the role they played in her decision to commit suicide. We follow Clay as he listens to the tapes and tries to understand the part he played in Hannah’s suicide, and what led her there.
These are my 13 reasons for reading the book:
1. My eldest daughter (who is 13 ironically) mentioned wanting to watch the Netflix series. We don’t have Netflix so I brought the book home for her. She wasn’t interested in reading it (somehow I’ve managed to raise a non-reader…go figure!). In hindsight I’m glad she didn’t read it. I don’t think she’s in the right mental place to read this kind of book, nor is she open to talking about the subjects raised.
2. After hearing the controversy over the Netflix series I found out that the book (which we stock) has been out for 10 years and there’d really little controversy at the time about it. How can a series cause so much kerfuffle and yet the book none? Before I can judge something I must first read/watch it (Twilight is the exception to this rule). Netflix was out so reading the book seemed like a good idea.
Since reading the book I received a letter from my eldest daughter’s high school highlighting that at risk youth should not be watching this series because of the way it deals with mental health and suicide, and other teens should watch it with parental guidance. How could I NOT read it?!?
3. I knew bullying was central to this story and I was drawn to that. I was bullied at high school. I never told anyone at the time. I thought my parents were too busy and it wasn’t important enough. My best friend was going through something similar, so what was she going to do about it? No other students said or did anything to acknowledge it was happening, or to stop it happening. I didn’t ever consider telling a teacher. They were distant and I felt alone. Reading about bullying now in YA books makes me rethink those times. It has made me kinder to myself, understanding that I wasn’t at fault, that I wasn’t the “loser” I was made to believe I was.
4. As a teen I was suicidal. I tried at least twice (and obviously failed). Before even opening the cover I suspected that I already knew this story. I felt drawn to this book to explore what could have been my own ending.
I know many people say suicide is selfish, but when you’re at the coal face you don’t think you’ll be missed and people will be better off without you. Life isn’t easy, and when you really realise how hard it can be, it feels too hard to keep going. It feels pointless.
I actually really got where Hannah was coming from. I don’t think she blamed most of the people on the list in so much that it was more of a map how she got to her ending. I’m certainly not saying that it’s a good solution, but it’s hers and this is her story.
5. I literally couldn’t put it down. Totally a binge read. Well written and haunting, you are on the edge of your seat waiting with Clay to find out why he is one of the 13 that Hannah blames for her suicide. Clay seems like such a genuinely good person it’s hard to figure out what he could have possibly done to add to Hannah’s pain and struggle.
6. We need to talk about bullying, suicide and mental health. Openly. At school. At home. We need to discuss it. We need to recognise the signs of someone considering it. We need to connect. I support books that start discussions on difficult topics.
7. At Three Four Knock on the Door we try to read all the books that we choose to stock. While it’s not physically possible to read ALL of them we do read a good chunk. But when there’s one featuring controversial topics we feel that one of us has to read the book to make sure we can make the appropriate recommendations (and warnings regarding content). While both Danielle and I believe it’s important to explore difficult topics through books, it must be done with age and maturity in mind, and in some circumstances, mental health as well.
A book is a safe environment that allows those untouched by the events to build up empathy and understanding towards those going through harder times, and for those going through similar circumstances, hopefully it helps them feel less alone.
8. I suspected that the book wasn’t as controversial as the Netflix series. I’d heard mention that the series glorifies suicide and there was talk of it being the ultimate revenge. I was sure the book wasn’t going to be like that.
The series main deviation from the book is Hannah’s actual suicide. In the book Clay mentions that Hannah swallowed some pills. That’s the extent of it. In the series Hannah slits her wrists in the bath and bleeds out. It is very graphic and very painful for Hannah (and to watch apparently). The creators of the show and the author explain that this change was made because they felt they would have been accused of romanticising suicide if we watched Hannah peacefully going to sleep and slipping away after taking some pills.
With the bathtub scene they wanted to make two points. Firstly that this was Hannah’s decision (regardless of what had happened to her), and secondly that suicide isn’t pretty or easy. It’s painful and dark and gruesome.
Did they accomplish this? Many say not. There are many mental health organisations protesting against this scene in particular. Hence the recommendation that vulnerable teens not watch the series, or at the very least watch it with a responsible adult, who is then able to discuss what they have seen.
I think it was a lose-lose situation for the team behind the series. Whatever the direction they went in there would be complaints. We as a society don’t like to discuss suicide, let alone see it in all it’s graphic glory.
9. I’d heard that some of the people on Hannah’s list had committed atrocious acts (rape), but others were typical teenage behaviour (friends falling out over a boy). I wanted to see how this played out in the book.
I didn’t feel that Hannah was ultimately blaming all the people equally. In fact she was really just taking us through a series of events that lead her to her final act. I think the author was trying to show that we all affect each other. The butterfly effect. When we’re unkind or mean or thoughtless, we don’t know what the other person has experienced, what they are going through, and all our actions (good and bad) have consequences.
In today’s teens there is less thought than ever before about the consequences of actions. When you bully someone in person you see their pain, their tears, their cries to leave them alone. When it’s online you don’t. You’re cocooned from it all and it’s easy for anyone to become a keyboard warrior. Todays children and teens are becoming more disconnected than ever before. We need to teach them that there is a consequence to every action. Maybe this book is a safe way for us to discuss this. It shows beautifully how a small thing can snowball and affect other areas of people lives.
10. I love reading YA (young adult) books. I pretend that I don’t read adult fiction because I don’t have time, but the truth is that even if I did have the time, I’d nearly always choose a YA book. They are entertaining; so readable (most of mine are read in one or two sittings); the perfect escape for adults in this tumultuous world we live in. In an earlier post I tried to explore in more detail why I love reading YA.
I’m lucky enough to share this passion with not only my sister but the YA for Adults book club that we run (Book Cellars). I can’t deny that wine is drunk and nibbles snacked upon, but the best part is talking about fabulous YA books with fellow adults.
11. I’m pretty liberal as a parent but I still want to know what my children are reading and watching. My main concern is age appropriateness. When my eldest wanted to read “Maze Runner” at 9 I stepped in. She just wasn’t ready for the story. Before the controversy storm over the Netflix series arose I was already unsure if it would be appropriate for her to watch the show. She’s going through a very difficult time, and although she comes across as a hard nut, she very sensitive and vulnerable. While I definitely won’t be allowing her to watch the series, if she was open to reading the book WITH me, I think that could spark some interesting and useful organic discussions. However I think that it would cut too deeply presently and she’d be unable to cope with a lot of the content.
12. Often when reading YA books I find it helps me get into my teenager’s mindset. I’m reminded of my own teenage angst and sometimes I see a different perspective from mine altogether. YA book often helps me understand my teen better and definitely have helped me built up more patience when dealing with her teenage self.
The river of depression runs deep through my family and I’ve always been aware that my eldest was very susceptible. She is really struggling at the moment and I wondered if this book would give me an insight, or answers, or ideas, to help her. I can’t say it gave me any answers, but it did remind me of my teenage struggles. It’s easy as an adult to see teen life in simplistic terms, but when you’re living it, it sure as hell doesn’t feel like that. I don’t want my daughter to deal with her feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression on her own like I thought I had to. As a parent with my own business, mortgage to pay, renovation to organise, another child to take care of, being a single parent…blah blah blah, it’s easy to forget the struggles and overwhelming feelings you have as an ordinary teen going through puberty (let alone one that has other issues to overcome). I can honestly say that reading “13 Reasons Why” helped me grow patience, time and understanding for my eldest and her current struggles.
13. And of course, the book is invariably better than the movie (or in this case Netflix series). Having read the book I’m going to watch the series, but this is more so I’m able to offer an honest opinion about who should be allowed to watch this show. Don’t forget it’s rated MA which means:
This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.
I would highly recommend this book to young adults over the age of 14 who are in the right mental space, are mature, and are open to discussing the difficult topics raised in the book. I would hate for parents not to buy this book because of the controversy over the series. It’s a great read and opens the lines of communication for many important discussions about mental health, bullying, suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and the genuine struggles of being a teenager
If you or anyone you know is affected by the topics discussed here contact Lifeline is on 13 11 14.