When Hannah Baker, a fictional teen in the young adult novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” records 13 tapes explaining why she took her own life, it’s her way of ensuring she isn’t silenced. Her creator, author Jay Asher, doesn’t want her to be either.
Since it was published in 2007, “Thirteen Reasons Why” has been a target of censorship. A Colorado school district banned the novel, saying it glamorized suicide. In Ontario, Canda, the story was pulled from school libraries for its “negative portrayals of helping professionals.” In Alberta, any discussion of the book was prohibited.
Earlier this year, the novel was adapted into a Netflix series, which reignited the debate around the novel’s themes and their portrayal. Parents and school districts worried the series would promote “suicide contagion”; Netflix added more trigger warnings before episodes. The New Zealand Office of Film and Literature banned people under 18 from watching the drama without an adult. For Asher, who helped develop the show, the response to both works has reinforced his ideas about the danger of censorship.
The PBS NewsHour recently caught up with Asher during Banned Books Week, held Sept. 24 – 30 in celebration of the freedom to read, to discuss censorship and the reactions to his work. This interview has been lightly edited.
NEWSHOUR: What kinds of stories are censored?
JAY ASHER: Pretty much any story that makes people uncomfortable. Stories about sensitive issues like sex, drugs or, in the case of my book, sexual assault, suicide and teen drinking, are often censored because people just don’t want to talk about those things.
It’s not that these things don’t happen, but when they’re shared in a fictional setting, for some reason they make some people uncomfortable.
NEWSHOUR: Do you think censorship tends to target young adult fiction?
JAY ASHER: It is targeted. One of the main reasons is because young adult literature is relatively new — it just kind of exploded in the 2000s. When I grew up, there weren’t bookstores with sections dedicated to teen lit, nor was my generation raised reading books written specifically for us.
Because of that, today we still think of books for teens as children’s books and so when you write a book that includes sensitive topics, it just seems even more controversial. What’s troubling to me about that is these are issues adults know that teens deal with. Not writing about them makes them something we don’t, or can’t talk about.
NEWSHOUR: Has young adult literature gotten too dark?
JAY ASHER: You know, I felt I had a very innocent childhood and I feel privileged by that. But as an adult, I know that there were people who didn’t have that. There are a lot of teens who haven’t had as easy a childhood as me, and having literature that explores these “darker” parts helps relieve the burden and stress they may be feeling.
As a writer, there is often a temptation to draw back when we write for teens — to preserve their innocence. But the reality is, if someone has already had that innocence taken in their life, then not writing about it is just brushing it under the rug.
NEWSHOUR: In your experience, how have the diverse themes in young adult literature helped teens explore their sense of self?
JAY ASHER: Personally, I never understood the power of having books written about your experience — whatever that experience may be — until I wrote one and started hearing from teens. I just got an email from a reader who said that “Thirteen Reasons Why” was the first time they had felt understood. A book shouldn’t be anybody’s first time feeling understood and that’s where censorship bothers me. These books need to be out there.
NEWSHOUR: Is there ever a cause for censorship?
JAY ASHER: No, because every reader is different. There’s no book that’s inappropriate for every person, but there are people who cannot handle everything. Last week I was speaking in Alaska and this one girl said she got to the eighth chapter in “Thirteen Reasons Why” and it became too much for her — she self-censored. But she said there would be a day when she’s able to finish my book, when she’ll be ready.
NEWSHOUR: The American Library Association, which keeps a record of challenged books or documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries, listed “Thirteen Reasons Why” as the third most “challenged” book of 2012. What’s your reaction to that?
JAY ASHER: A lot of authors see their book being banned or challenged as a badge of honor. But for me, it’s nothing but frustrating and upsetting. I hear from readers, and now viewers of the Netflix show, that my work encouraged them to ask for help or reach out to someone about the situation they’re in. When you hear stories like that on a daily basis and then hear adults call for your work to be banned, it’s proof of why the stigma around these issues is so dangerous.
Challenging “Thirteen Reasons Why” was not a badge of honor, but a reason, I think, why teens have so much trouble opening up to adults. If we say issues of teen suicide, drinking, sex or sexual assault are inappropriate, we’re telling teens who may identify with those themes that there isn’t a safe space for them.
NEWSHOUR: People have expressed concern that some scenes in your book are too graphic. What was your original intention or inspiration when writing them?
JAY ASHER: “Thirteen Reasons Why” was partly inspired by a relative who attempted suicide in high school, and some of the scenes were things I had experienced or people had told me about over the years.
One scene in particular that a lot of people have an issue with is the hot tub scene where Hannah is sexually assaulted. In both the book and the TV show, I don’t have Hannah say no. Boys are taught “no means no,” but quite often in those situations a girl is afraid to say no. I wrote that scene with boys in mind. I wanted them to know sexual assault is wrong no matter what.
NEWSHOUR: Before you wrote ‘“Thirteen Reasons Why,” did you think it would be challenged?
JAY ASHER: I did. I knew it was going to be pulled from libraries and contested at schools. But the thing about my book is that a lot of people stumble upon it, but when it’s not on shelves, people can’t do that. Libraries, to me, are safe spaces, and if young readers can’t explore the themes in my book there, where can they?
NEWSHOUR: What role do you think the internet plays in censorship?
JAY ASHER: I think it gives would-be censors more justification for what they’re doing because you can use the internet to get a book at anytime, and they want to limit that. They’re making it more difficult.
As for the rise of social media, it’s one of the reasons books with stories like mine need to be out there. Social media is a false reality, it’s only what we want people to see about us, but when teens read stories like mine they can see that they’re not the only ones struggling.
NEWSHOUR: What has been the response to “Thirteen Reasons Why” since it premiered as a Netflix series?
JAY ASHER: Everything is just heightened. You have more readers and viewers, but you also have more criticism. More people are trying to censor the book because the story is out there so much more. I’ve had a lot of teens reach out to comfort me in the wake of all this criticism, while at the same time I feel bad they have to listen to adults argue about it.