The YA novel, written by Jay Asher, is the source material for a wildly popular and highly contentious Netflix adaptation of the same name, about a high school girl who decides to commit suicide after compiling a series of tapes that chronicle her reasons for doing so.
The show, considered a smash success for the streaming service, has been both praised by critics for its unsettling take on teenage-centric TV and denounced by psychologists for its irresponsible depiction of mental illness.
Teachers and parents have expressed similar concerns, claiming that the TV show glorifies and romanticizes suicide ― taking issue with the graphic depiction of the lead character’s actual suicide, which some have claimed opens the door for copycats.
In response, the curriculum director at Mesa County Valley School District in Colorado, Leigh Grasso, told her schools’ librarians to temporarily pull copies of Asher’s book from circulation. “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,” she told The Associated Press.
According to the AP, the order “rankled some librarians who called [the decision] censorship.” Following protests, the books ― 19 of which were already checked out by students at the time ― were officially returned to circulation.
“Censorship is a slippery slope,” one librarian wrote to the school, according to emails obtained by The Daily Sentinel through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
James LaRue, director of the American Library Associations’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, confirmed that the book Thirteen Reasons Why has been challenged by at least one other school besides Mesa County, though he declined to give details on their ongoing investigation. (The AP cited yet another school district in Minnesota, which temporarily pulled the book after a parent complained about its sexual content.)
“There are a lot of people that are terribly afraid when something like this comes out,” LaRue told HuffPost over the phone. “That when teen suicide happens in an area, sometimes they’re contagious. Every time someone writes about, it seems like there tends to be more of them. So I totally understand the fear that some parents have about this.”
People have been writing about suicide because it happens. It doesn’t happen because people write about it. ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom director James LaRue
However, he does not condone the decision to remove the books without due process, noting that “people have been writing about suicide because it happens. It doesn’t happen because people write about it.”
Attempts to remove the book from the school, he says, particularly in ways that bypass processes that libraries have long had in place for reconsideration, could be hurting the situation rather than helping.
“When someone comes in and complains about a book, what should happen is not that the book is immediately withdrawn, but that a committee is put together, [made up of] some parents, some teachers, some librarians, and they look at this and say, ‘Does this fit the curriculum? Does it make sense? Is this a way for us to talk about an important issue?’” he explained, adding, “I would urge schools to follow their policies and procedures, rather than have this reflexive attempt to halt discussion of other important issues.”
LaRue pointed out that the book does stand apart from the Netflix adaptation, describing the show as more “in-your-face graphic” than Asher’s novel. (Other differences between the two have been outlined here.) Still, he believes that both the TV version and the book have merit.
“I just want to leave people with this thought,” he concluded. “The popularity of the series might really save lives and so might more reading and talking about the issue. But silence won’t help us at all, and censorship is never the answer.”