As a Colorado community mourns the loss of seven students who recently killed themselves, a school district official ordered librarians to temporarily stop circulating a book that’s the basis for Netflix’s popular new series 13 Reasons Why, which some critics say romanticises suicide.
The order rankled some librarians who called it censorship, and it appears to be a rare instance in which the book has been removed from circulation — albeit briefly.
It also has highlighted the debate about balancing freedom of speech with concerns about students.
“It would be hard for anybody who has dealt with suicide to not have a heightened awareness of things, to perhaps be a little more cautious about things,” said Leigh Grasso, the curriculum director for the 22,000-student Mesa County Valley School District who decided to pull the book.
The best-selling young adult novel, published in 2007, follows a high schoolgirl who kills herself after creating a series of tapes for her classmates to play after her death. She gave the tapes to people who influenced her decision.
Her death in the Netflix series is depicted in the final episode of the first season, and the graphic scene has prompted schools across the country to send letters to parents and guardians with tips on how to prevent suicide.
From upstate New York to the Midwest and California, school administrators have warned that the series sensationalises suicide and does not provide a good road map for people struggling with mental illness. There is no evidence that any of the Mesa County students who killed themselves since the beginning of the school year were inspired by the series or the book.
Grasso, who has not read the book or watched the series, appears to be one of only a few school leaders in the country who has taken the book out of circulation. Another school district in Minnesota temporarily pulled the book after a parent complained that it referenced sex.
Grasso cited media attention and recent events in an April 28 email to district librarians letting them know about her decision.
Of the 20 copies available in the school district, 19 were checked out at the time and were not affected by the directive. Still, several librarians protested, and the order was rescinded about three hours after it was issued.
Grasso said the book was made available again after librarians and school counsellors determined it did not include scenes as graphic as those depicted in the Netflix series.
“I think we were just being cautious until we had the opportunity to look at the book and see how closely related to the movie it was,” she told The Associated Press.
Grasso said her decision did not amount to censorship because the book was not permanently banned — an argument that drew some pushback in the school district.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel cited one librarian saying there is a formal, board-approved process to challenge books in the district.
“I believe it is our duty to follow that process, because censorship is a slippery slope,” the librarian wrote.
The newspaper, which obtained the feedback through an open records request and did not name the librarians, reported that a middle school librarian wrote, “Once we start pulling and censoring books for all students as a reactive measure there is no line to which we follow.”
The show’s creators remain unapologetic, saying their frank depiction of suicide needs to be unflinching and raw.
“Many people are accusing the show of glamorising suicide and I feel strongly — and I think everyone who made the show — feel very strongly that we did the exact opposite,” writer Brian Yorkey said. “What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.”
Jay Asher, who wrote the book after a close relative attempted suicide as a teenager, said he has spoken at schools in all 50 states and tells students he would not be there if it weren’t for teachers who were not afraid to talk about uncomfortable topics.
“Over and over, readers describe Thirteen Reasons Why as the first time they felt understood,” Asher said. “Recognising that people will understand is the first step toward asking for help.”
James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said he understands why Grasso wanted to review the book, but “instead of just reacting to a moment, you get people together and make a sensible decision.”
“Sometimes the world is a dangerous place, but reading about it isn’t,” he said.