This past summer, a handful of parents asked for my approval for their middle school child to read higher-level books in fulfillment of their summer reading. This happens frequently when a book was recently made into a movie or TV series. My approval is based on reading levels and online quiz availability, not content. However, some of the books contained mature content geared toward high school students, and I wanted to inform the parents. My response includes my opinion, but I am very clear when I state they, as parents, have the final say.
Depending on the content, I sometimes recommend to the parent that they also read the book. I have a few friends who have a continuous parent-child book club, especially for titles that contain issues that are delicate. The books provide an opportunity to talk about important issues that may not happen organically. On a side note, it’s a great way to reinforce what was read.
“As a parent, if you get the chance to read the same book, it’s a chance to talk about the difficult topics that teenagers go through. Normally, these topics are uncomfortable but by talking about the choices made by characters it opens avenues to explore your own teenagers’ thoughts and feelings and whether they would have made the same decision. I always say it’s better to let them read and experience bad decisions through the characters than on their own.”
— Mrs. Taylor, reading teacher and parent.
Earlier this year, Netflix released a series based on Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” and it created quite a controversy. Parents became uncomfortable about their children watching a series that brought the delicate issue of suicide into their homes. Ironically, this popular book has been in many homes since 2007. This book has been removed from some high school shelves, but libraries should not only mirror the curriculum, they should mirror life.
“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.”
— Laurie Halse Anderson, author
The following is from a teacher who has “Thirteen Reasons Why” on her summer reading list:
“I first read Jay Asher’s debut novel ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ in 2008. I was looking for young adult books that students would find both engaging and meaningful. After finishing the book in one sitting, I thought that the story, though edgy, would be perfect for my freshmen students. Nine years later, I still feel that way. Clay Jensen’s journey through Hannah Baker’s downward spiral gives us as readers the opportunity to reflect on our lives and the decisions we make. For high schoolers suffocating in an age of social media, the lesson of this book is still as pertinent as ever: your words and actions affect those around you.”
“Now that the book has been adapted into a Netflix series, ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ is gaining new traction, some good and some bad. For a reader, seeing a book on screen is one of the hardest things to do. You go through the emotions
— excitement for the possibilities; fear of the editing — and wonder if they’ll get it right. Will this character look the same? Will that scene play out the same way that I pictured it? I often recommend students read the book before seeing its visual counterpart because it will reinforce what she/he has read. Most times the reader will reconnect with the source material afterward, which is exactly what I did once I saw the series. Because I hadn’t read the book in quite a while, I watched the shows and read each tape afterward (the book uses cassette tape sides in place of chapters). I read with new eyes, as a wife, a mother and a seasoned teacher. The story still resonated with the same anxiety I originally felt as Clay first receives Hannah’s tapes. But now as a parent, I thought about how much high school has changed since I’ve been there, how my children will be thrust into that same world Hannah so wanted to leave. And I thought about how terrifying it must be for children to go through this alone. Many adults, upon first learning of this show, have been outraged by the graphic nature of this series. Some worry about the show’s ‘glamorizing’ nature of suicide. However, the book is anything but. Both the show and the book have provided resources for crisis lines and suicide awareness. Asher himself has been advocating for anti-bullying for years. ‘Thirteen Reasons Why,’ in both mediums, should be taken in context and discussed thoroughly, and parents are the key to that. Teenage years can leave parents exasperated. But still, it’s vital that parents step in and take part in as many aspects of their children’s lives as they can, and reading is no exception. Reading a book with a teen or simultaneously can give both something to discuss (believe me, this book lends for many discussions). It will give parents an opportunity to take on taboo topics, like sex, drugs, suicide, and bullying, and to guide the conversation. Sharing in a reading experience will give parents and kids a new bond to forge and take away thoughtful stories and meaningful conversation that parents often yearn for. So even if a book/series like ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ comes along and seems too graphic or too bold for kids, taking part in that experience can be beneficial for both children and parents alike. Adults can even learn a thing or two from this book.”
The LRJ Foundation provides assistance to local school districts including preventative measures, warning signs and treatment options: lrjfoundation.com
Here is a message from Christine DeSousa, MA, LPC, NCC of The LRJ Foundation and a high school educator:
“Teenagers today face a variety of issues that previous generations are not familiar with. For example, 24-hour access to social media and the ability to instantly give or receive virtual praise and/or criticism of self and others has given our teens mixed messages about how to genuinely relate to the world. Anxiety diagnoses have risen in teens as they face increased pressures at school, both with peers and academics where an A grade is no longer good enough. Parents of teens struggle with what to do because these issues are new with the rise of technology, and as all generations learn to manage and balance the pros and cons of being constantly connected to the world at the tips of our fingers.”
These examples only scratch the surface and this discussion does not end here. And neither should the discussion of mental health and suicide awareness. The book/movie at best brings awareness to a stigmatized epidemic. Talk with your children on how to cope with their perceptions of teenage life. Be compassionate with yourself as we all navigate through a time where suicide among adolescents is at its highest. This is our time to make a difference.
Keep the discussion going!
A tip to parents: take notice of what your children are reading in addition to what they are watching. If the content offers an opportunity to talk, seize the moment.