When author Jay Asher was writing his best-selling young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why, he says he didn’t know he was writing a story about bullying. But his young readers soon clued him in.
The book is a story about 16-year-old Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes for the people she feels contributed to her decision to end her own life. The New York Times called Thirteen Reasons Why “a stealthy hit with surprising staying power,” and that was back in 2009. It now has more than two million copies in print and been published in 35 countries.
Asher says emails poured in from young readers confessing that the book had been life changing. Some readers identified with Hannah’s pain and hopelessness and said the book inspired them to ask for help; others wrote that it helped them grieve after suicides of people close to them; and still more said reading the novel made them realize how their actions affect others and that they can do more help their peers.
“Everyone reads this story in a way that’s shaped by their own experiences, and I think for some people, for some reason, for the first time, they could finally talk about these issues,” Asher said.
Asher spoke to Gilman’s Upper School Assembly on October 23, 2014. It was Asher’s twelfth stop – and his only one in Maryland – on his “50 States Against Bullying” tour, launched by the Penguin Young Readers Group in conjunction with National Bullying Prevention Month in October.
Asher spoke about what led him to write the novel, shared personal emails from readers whose lives have been changed by it, and challenged the Gilman community to broaden the traditional definition of bullying. He concluded by listing warning signs that someone needs help.
Because it deals with such a heavy subject matter, Thirteen Reasons Why is among the most frequently banned books in the country. Asher applauded Gilman for bringing him in as a speaker. “It says something about a school that the faculty and adults here want to talk about serious issues,” he said.
Later in the day, Asher held a book discussion with faculty and signed copies of his Thirteen Reasons Why in the library. He also participated in one of his favorite Q&A sessions to date, with members of Gilman’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “The questions were wide-ranging, but allowed me to open up about a topic that I know touches many of the readers I’ve met over the years,” Asher wrote on his blog.
Diane Fuller, director of libraries at Gilman, organized the author’s visit and was pleased to watch Gilman students interact with Asher and take in his message.
“I first read his book about four years ago and have read it another three times, each time seeing something new – how people come in and out of our lives, how the little things we say can have an effect on someone and we don’t realize it, that we don’t always get a second chance and more,” Fuller said. “To be able to share these ideas with our students with the author of this powerful book is a special opportunity.”
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