13 Reasons Why may be a 10-year-old novel, but thanks to Netflix’s TV adaptation, the book is now facing new challenges.
Mesa County Valley School District in Colorado issued an order to remove Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why from school bookshelves on April 28. But after protests from librarians, who claimed the ban was censorship, the order was retracted, three hours after being issued.
The order was issued after seven students sadly died by suicide in the Colorado school district.
While there’s nothing to suggest that any of the suicides were linked to reading or watching 13 Reasons Why, the district pulled the book from shelves preemptively due to the sensitive and triggering content.
“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,” the district’s curriculum director Leigh Grasso told . “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.”
However, librarians involved suggested the district’s ban was a form of censorship.
“Once we start pulling and censoring books for all students as a reactive measure there is no line to which we follow,” one librarian told The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Another librarian pointed out that Asher wrote the novel to promote suicide awareness and prevention, which the show and its creators espouse vocally.
It’s no secret that some of the most popular books in history have been banned (Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird), and that banning anyone particularly teens from doing something often piques their interest in it.
Another YA hit, John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, continues to garner protests from adults who object its language and sexual references.
Text is meaningless without context,” Green said in a video about the book’s repeated banning. In this case that means that while 13 Reasons Why is primarily about a suicide, banning it without context (Grasso hasn’t read it) won’t necessarily steer the conversation the right way.
“Teenagers are critically engaged and thoughtful readers,” Green adds in the video. “They also don’t read The Outsiders and think ‘I should join a gang’ or read Divergent and think ‘I should jump onto moving trains.’ So far as I can tell, that kind of narrowly prescriptive reading only happens in the offices of school superintendents.
13 Reasons Why deals with verbal and sexual abuse and numerous mental health organizations and school administrators have urged teens to steer clear of the show in particular but none so far have successfully removed it outright. In context, the abuse is presented as horrible and wrong, and the protagonist provides the perspective of someone dealing with trauma and mental illness.
According to book website Diversity in YA, banned books tend to be diverse, intersectional, and issue-based. Though the visual adaptation of 13 Reasons Why presents a different set of issues, it’s also heavily populated by LGBTQ+ characters and people of color, a rarity in teen texts.
As Green notes, banning books tends to be more of a reactive measure than an effective one. In fact, at the time of the 13 Reasons Why ban in Colorado, 19 of the district’s 20 copies of the book were already checked out, meaning the ban had little effect to stop teens from reading the novel.
Oh, and the series, which received far more inflammatory responses, is still readily available on Netflix.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.