Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Librarian's Take on 13 Reasons Why: Part 1, a Defense of the Book

Since the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I have seen many articles from psychologists, parents, and teachers talking about all the ways in which the show is irresponsible and dangerous.  I don't necessarily disagree with their points, but as a YA librarian who works with 900 teens each day, I feel like I might have some other things to discuss about the show and the book.

I read 13 Reasons Why when it came out ten years ago.  (Aside:  The kids at my school are amazed to learn there has been a book around all this time before it was a series).  I read fast and a few days to weeks later can only tell you that I liked or disliked a book and a couple of specific memories.  I felt "meh" about 13 Reasons.  I didn't think the writing was spectacular and Hannah felt pretty whiny to me about things that most of us have gone through.  Nothing struck me as inappropriate for middle school readers although I am admittedly very liberal with what I will put on my shelves.  Since my memory of specifics is not great, after watching the series I felt that I needed to go back through the book to be able to do a real comparison.  So I just completed a speedy second reading of the book.  I felt exactly the same as I remember from my first reading.

However, as a librarian I have other considerations for what makes a book that I like.  The first kind of book I like is one that I actually enjoyed reading.  The second kind of book I like is one that I might not have personally enjoyed but that I know will be popular with my students.  I like those books because it's hard enough to encourage teens to read so anything they will pick up is something I like.  13 Reasons Why is one of those books.  I can "sell" it to any teen, every single time I booktalk it.  It has an amazing hook that pulls them in.  What's more, any librarian can tell you that one way to know a book is popular is that it gets stolen a lot.  I've had to buy a lot of replacement copies of 13 Reasons over the years.

During the past week I binged the series.  I will talk more about that in a later post, but first I want to address a worry of mine as a librarian.  This show is blowing up, fast!  Seeing all the concerns from so many sources, and having 25 years experience in school libraries, I feel sure that someone is going to question the appropriateness of the book for middle schoolers sooner rather than later.  There are plenty of reviews to back up its inclusion in my collection not to mention the fact that it has been on my shelves for a decade, but here's another point:  there's a world of difference between reading and immersing yourself in a visual representation of that world.  And our kids are so much more responsive to video than text so they are going to have a more intense reaction to the series than to anything they read.  They are two totally different mediums and if you are someone who has watched the series, DO NOT judge the book by that series.  

First of all, the book is a quick read of only about 250 pages.  Even slow, but dedicated, readers will be able to finish that in a few hours.  The show is 13 loooonnnnng hours (foreshadowing of my feelings about the series) so that's a lot of time to be immersed in this world.  

Secondly, the series ramps up the drama all around.  In the book we basically only hear from Hannah and Clay.  We hear what Hannah tells us herself and what Clay remembers of the situations she describes.  In the show we delve into the thoughts, lives, and repercussions for all of the people on the tapes.  We see the teens' lives falling apart as they feel the guilt for what they did to Hannah (which is actually one of the recurring complaints people have about the series).  We are also drawn deep into Hannah's parents' grief which is devastating, especially as an adult viewer.  It's not that the book is a light-hearted romp, but it is easier to separate yourself from the events which makes it less troublesome.  

Thirdly, the word "fuck" does not appear in the book at all but it is all over the place in the series.  I don't object to that word myself but it is a huge problem for people when it comes to challenging books.  In this case, I think that is a fair indicator of the difference in mature content between the book and the series.  The series also shows most of the kids drinking and several of them selling and buying pot.  Drinking is mentioned in the party scenes in the book but pot never comes up.

Next, when it comes to edgy content in a book, one thing I look at is the page number on which the swearing or mature subject matter occurs.  A book I read recently had the phrase "Shit-faced rat fucker" on page 6.  See, that's a problem because every reader is going to make it to page 6.   But if a sweaty make out scene doesn't happen until 2/3 of the way into the book, that's much less of a problem because only my good readers are going to get that far anyway.  And they are more likely to be mature enough to deal with that content in the first place.  But watching TV does not require tenacity or maturity so it's likely that everyone who starts the series will have no trouble making it to the scenes with (extremely) mature content. 

In 13 Reasons, Hannah makes the point that everything snowballs to her decision to kill herself so even the things that see somewhat trivial are part of the overall package.  But I would say that the first pretty edgy scene is with Marcus in the diner which is page 141 - nearly exactly halfway through the book.  Before that the offenses Hannah details are rumors, being slapped, and being added to the hot freshman girls list.  And even with Marcus, after he feels her up, Hannah stands up to him so she still has some power.  So the book passes my "not too early in the book" test of mature content.

Finally, there are many differences between the book and the series but one of the most significant to me is the method of suicide.  The series shows Hannah cutting her veins open in a graphic scene but in the book she decides to take pills, a much less graphic ending to her life.  I actually have my reasons for why I might prefer the way it is depicted on Netflix, but that's a topic for another post.  Furthermore, not only is her suicide method less gory in the book, it is not described at all other than in her train of thought about how she will kill herself.  So the voyeuristic part of the suicide is cut out entirely.

Coming up:  How the series differs from the book, what I thought about the series, and what my students have to say about the show


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! It behooves all of us MS librarians and counselors to inform ourselves about both the book and the TV series since they have obviously caught the kids' curiosity.

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