How a Teen Librarian Addressed “13 Reasons Why” in Her Community

A public librarian gathered teens, school leaders, and parents for community forum on the controversial adaptation of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why.
On the evening of Monday, June 5, the Brookline (MA) Public Library’s Teen Room hosted a community round table to discuss the recent acclaimed but controversial Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007). As a teen librarian, I was familiar with the novel that inspired the series, but many viewers of this binge-ready program were unfamiliar with the source material, the original target audience, or the subtle but significant changes made in translating prose to the small screen. In Brookline, as in many communities across the country, parents and educators were caught off guard by the show. It rapidly became clear that students as young as fifth and sixth grade were devouring episode after episode without context or discussion outside their friends. Teens and adults were faced with sensitive topics, including suicide, mental illness, sexual assault, rape culture, and bullying, presented in a format that was compelling to watch but harder to talk about. Letters were sent home to parents giving them the heads up about the show, its content, and guidance on how best to watch the series or talk about it with their children. With questions and concerns brewing, I proposed partnering with our schools to host an evening discussion about the adaptation, the book, and the ensuing controversy. In particular, I hoped to create a space where teens and adults could talk through the issues raised by the series and provide resources from the library and the schools on where to find more information, wellness resources, and readers' and viewers' advisory.   The panel, which I moderated, included eighth grade guidance counselor Rebecca Sneider, local teacher Ania Bigda, clinical graduate intern and peer leader adviser Julia Kantner, and our three Brookline High School peer leaders Nairi Harumi, Isabella Ghafour, and Hallie Friedman. The school’s peer leaders identify social issues within the school and address them in engaging and creative ways, working with high school and younger students throughout the town. Attendees were adults, including representatives from school groups such as the Brookline Public Schools Wellness Committee and our high school library, as well as parents and interested community members. We started out by talking through how everyone had first encountered Thirteen Reasons Why. Most teens had read the novel a few years earlier, since it had been on the high school summer recommended reading list, while many of the adults had been unfamiliar with the book prior to the release of the Netflix version. We noted the different experience of reading the book vs. seeing the story on screen and the more explicit choices the showrunners made. Both teens and adults were concerned about younger readers and teens encountering the series without the ability to process it or discuss it with someone during or after. One teen admitted that she'd realized her younger sister, a sixth grader, watched it around the same time she did but that they watched it separately and never talked about it. In addressing the weighty content of the show and novel, the teen peer leaders emphasized a broad takeaway: what you do (and don't do) affects the people around you far more than you may be aware, and that we each have the responsibility to think about our actions before we say or do something hurtful or dismissive. They noted that a lot of the news coverage of the show emphasized resources for suicide prevention. While everyone on the panel agreed suicide prevention is a necessary part of discussing the show, the teen leaders and guidance counselor felt that scenes of bullying, sexual assault, and the ingrained double standards of behavior for guys and girls are just as important to acknowledge and work to address in their schools. One mom shared how she'd assumed that high school was smooth sailing for her children, given that she never heard anything worrying from them directly. However, when the high school did a recent community installation, inviting students to anonymously post notes talking about their experiences, she was moved to tears. Reading through all the notes, she could see that bullying and stress were still prevalent. It made her realize that even within a high school with a strong support system and inclusive attitude, students were not having the rosy experience adults might assume from the outside. Sneider, the guidance counselor, tackled the less than flattering portrayal of the school counselor in the show. She acknowledged that the fictional counselor handled events terribly but his lack of action highlighted the need in many schools for more counselors and trained adults to help the hundreds of students in a typical public school. Everyone then talked through the ongoing problem of how to ensure that the teens who need help most can find someone to talk to, whether that be someone their own age, such as the peer leaders; anonymous helplines; or counselors. Nairi, Isabella, and Hallie all wished there were a way they could offer help to other students, especially since many would be more likely to start a conversation with a fellow student than with a teacher or counselor. Given the weight of that responsibility and that as high school students they can't act as social workers, the group turned their focus toward how to foster more trust among students and make sure that the peer leaders could at least act as a direct link to counselors and professional services. The evening finished with a few notes about the handout we had created together, including local and national resources like text helplines, mental health services, and a list of read- and watch-alike recommendations. Titles were selected for their similarities, either in subject matter or in narrative structure, with the book or the Netflix series. We didn't shy away from titles that dealt with difficult issues or had unresolved endings, such as Courtney Summers’s Some Girls Are (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), but we did emphasize stories that reminded readers or watchers that there can be hope and help, such as E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Dutton, 2016). The power of a piece of pop culture, especially in mass media like television or film, can spark conversations across a community. Our evening, especially in presenting our teens as valuable expert resources, reminded all of us that when serious concerns are raised we can come together to examine reactions, share resources, lend insight, and recommend stories that will resonate with fans.

See also:

Thinking About 13 Reasons Why: Teens, Mental Health, and Media by Karen Jensen | Teen Librarian Toolbox

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Love that the author did this. I think it is a very productive way to deal with serious topics in society without insisting on censorship of materials. Instead, making available resources for community members that will help is far more productive in my opinion. Thank you for sharing this and congratulations for using the materials in such a constructive way.

Posted : Jun 29, 2017 07:28

Kristen Draper

We are doing a 13 Reasons Why bookclub in August with mental health professionals from our local Imagine Zero Suicide Coalition, and I am wondering if we could adapt your handout for the discussion. Thanks so much!

Posted : Jun 29, 2017 01:32



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