Despite ongoing criticism over his best-selling book about a suicidal teen — and the hit Netflix series it inspired — local author Jay Asher says “Thirteen Reasons Why” plays a vital role in addressing suicide, sexual assault and bullying.
“If we had no book out there, no TV show, anyone who’s literally dealing with (these issues) is not going to feel like they can ask for help,” he said.
The San Luis Obispo author said he understands why some parents may not want their kids to watch a series that some mental health professionals argue glamorizes suicide. “But the alternative is for us not to talk about this stuff, which continues the stigma.”
Asher, who will participate in a “Burn the Bully” event Friday at Cuesta College as part of the Central Coast Writers Conference, says he’s heard from parents, teachers and guidance counselors praising the positive impact of “Thirteen Reasons Why” — noting that it has generated important conversations about how young people can get help. And he regularly speaks to students who say the novel has saved their lives.
First published in 2007, “Thirteen Reasons Why” follows high school student Clay as he uncovers why his former classmate and crush, Hannah (Katherine Langford), committed suicide. The only clues come from a shoebox of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, detailing the 13 people she blames for her death.
Over the past decade, “Thirteen Reasons Why” has reached millions of readers, spent years on The New York Times’ best-seller list and been published in more than 30 countries. (Razorbill published a 10th anniversary edition of “Thirteen Reasons Why” in December.) The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which returns for a second season next year, has extended the story’s reach even further.
Asher called the series, which stars Clay Minette and Katherine Langford, a “perfect adaptation.” Pop star and actress Selena Gomez and her mom, Mandy Teefey, are among the executive producers, while the creative team includes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey.
Since “13 Reasons Why” debuted on the streaming service in March, hundreds of school districts in the United States and Canada have sent letters cautioning parents about the show’s mature subject matter and graphic depictions of teen suicide, rape, drunk driving and bullying.
One Colorado school district briefly pulled Asher’s book from library shelves. An elementary school in Alberta, Canada, prohibited its students from mentioning the Netflix show on school grounds.
The National Association of School Psychologists has warned “vulnerable youth” who have had thoughts of suicide to avoid watching the series because it could “romanticize the choices made by the characters” or cause them to “develop revenge fantasies.” Parents and students have circulated petitions urging Netflix to drop the show.
The controversy even extended to San Luis Obispo County.
In April, Mesa Middle School in Arroyo Grande shared a Facebook post that strongly encouraged parents to research “13 Reasons Why” before allowing their children to watch it.
“We are concerned about the questions and feelings this series may raise with students, especially if they are watching it unsupervised,” the post read. “The series is very graphic and explicit and questionably appropriate for middle school-aged students.” (Although the show is rated for mature audiences —usually defined as viewers 17 and older — Asher’s novel is recommended for ages 14 and up.)
Initially, Asher took criticism of “Thirteen Reasons Why” personally “because it was a very personal book.” But over the years, that hurt has morphed into anger over how the issues that young people confront daily aren’t being addressed well enough.
By telling teens they shouldn’t read his book or watch “13 Reasons Why,” “you’re literally telling them, ‘You’re not someone who understands. ... You don’t get it,’ ” he said. “It just upsets me.”
Netflix is currently filming the second season of “13 Reasons Why,” set to debut in 2018.
Asher, who served as a consultant on the show during the first season, isn’t involved this time. But he’s pleased with how Netflix is expanding the storyline.
“They’re doing what I didn’t have time for,” said the author, whose latest book, the graphic novel “Piper,” hits store shelves Oct. 31. “Some of the situations and new characters (in season two) are like what I’ve brainstormed in my head.”
‘Burn the Bully’
“Thirteen Reasons Why” author Jay Asher will participate in a “Burn the Bully” event at 6 p.m. Friday at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
Participants are invited to write the names of bullies on strips of paper and place them in a firepit, symbolically releasing their memories of bullying. The event, which runs until 6:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.
It’s all part of the Central Coast Writers Conference, which kicked off Thursday and ends Saturday. For information about the conference, presented by Cuesta College Community Programs, visit www.centralcoastwritersconference.com.
Transitions-Mental Health Association provides free, confidential help via its mental health support, crisis and suicide prevention hotline, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call SLO Hotline at 800-783-0607.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.