Sunday, September 19, 2010

Books that walk the real dark side

When I was 14, a classmate stuffed something in the exhaust pipe of the family car and asphyxiated herself. Why would she do that? I was too naïve to understand, and no adult talked to me in any useful way about it. I got the feeling there was something sordid about suicide, something you should put in a far corner of a dark closet and cover up.

As an adult, I understand how life can be overwhelming, how adults can abuse the young in horrific ways, how society can expect more than a child thinks he can deliver, how shame can make a person feel worthless.

I have no idea what pushed that girl into the abyss, but I wish I’d had someone to talk to about it. I wish she’d had someone to talk to. I wish there had been books like the ones I’m about to talk about.
As a lead-up to Banned Books Week, I pledged to read and write about books that people have requested be removed from public and school libraries. The annual event, sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations, takes place Sept. 25-Oct. 2 this year.

Two of my reading choices--TWISTED by Laurie Halse Anderson and TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher—deal with teen suicide. They’ve opened the closet. I’ve added a third book at the end of the post, which touches on the subject, as well. That book is such a stunner, I had to include it, and no one should pass up reading it.

First, I want to say I admire the bravery of these three authors and the craftsmanship of their work.

Second, I understand why people wouldn’t want very young readers to tackle these books. They’re meant for teens/young adults, not children. For some readers, stories like these might help them see they’re not alone; there are other options and possible abuse-free futures. For the reader who has an abuse-free life, it’s not a bad thing to learn about those who are less fortunate, to understand why they behave as they do.

Third, there’s never a reason to ban a book. There is plenty of reason to be sure it’s in age-appropriate hands and to discuss the content. Parents and teachers have an opportunity and responsibility to help kids comprehend what they read and see beyond their own experiences, to learn about others, to be compassionate and open-minded. A lot of books today have study guides printed in the back. How awesome is that?

It’s hard for me to come up with the proper praise for TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, but Sherman Alexie nailed it with “a mystery, eulogy and ceremony.” Asher’s debut novel is one of the most originally-told stories I’ve read in a long time as it painfully unveils the troubled life of a girl though cassette tapes she’s mailed to people she claims helped drive her to suicide.

Asher doesn’t sentimentalize Hannah. She has an active (or passive) role in much that has happened and could have made other choices. The story is told through her voice on the tapes and through Clay, one of the recipients as he reacts to her tale.

I hold my finger over the button, listening to the soft hum in the speakers, the faint squeak of the spindles winding the tape, waiting for her voice to return.

The series of events starts with a lie a classmate tells about her and grows into a reputation she never deserved. I felt Clay’s anguish as he tries to understand Hannah, who he’d been crushing on before she killed herself. I’m grateful that Asher gave Clay the sense to unravel Hannah’s story and see that she could’ve chosen differently. And so can he.

Adults are often uncomfortable with sexual reference in teen books, but if there ever was a time in life when hormones are pumping, that would be it. A teen-age boy wouldn’t tell his mother that looking at a hot girl has an immediate physiological effect, but a book written from a boy’s point-of-view might mention that embarrassing fact. Anderson does that in TWISTED, but she also gives her main character integrity. He really is a stand-up guy, and that’s no pun.

Tyler is a former nerd who turns into a "bad" boy and hunk in a matter of months. It begins with a graffiti prank that lands him a probation officer and community service of summertime labor. “I was good at digging holes. It was the rest of life I sucked at,” he says.

His head takes time to catch up with his new mystique at school, while at home his emotionally-abusive father gets worse. Tyler’s shaky grip on life slips when he’s suspected of a terrible crime he didn’t commit. The only place the book didn’t feel real to me was an interaction between father and son at the end. I doubt life would play out like that.

Anderson is also being challenged for SPEAK, an award-winning novel about a girl who loses her voice after a rape. To put a muzzle on such an important story is wrong-headed--actually it's worse than that since the attacker called the book soft porn. That's an outrage. Anderson writes on her blog about the current attack. (Please, please click over and listen to the poem she wrote using comments from readers on SPEAK. You will weep.)

Finally, I’m going to mention one more book, which deals with the death of a girl that her friends suspect may have been suicide. LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green, winner of the Printz Award, has also been challenged for language and sexual content. But this is a book in which the main character realizes something so profound about life, I can’t help but wish everyone would read it. Here’s a snippet that shows the elegance and depth of Green’s writing:

Her mouth close enough to me that I could feel her breath warmer than the air, she said, “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?” I waited for her to keep talking, but after a while it became obvious she wanted an answer.

If anyone reading this post ever feels suicidal or knows a friend who might be, please call 1-800-SUICIDE or go to There are options.


Bish Denham said...

Excellent post Tricia! Thanks.

Andrea Cremer said...

Great post, Tricia. Such an important line of discussion.

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

Thank you for this post! I have long believed that suppressing ugly truths causes more harm than it avoids. If these things are a real part of teenage life, then they need to be discussed.

I remember in Catholic high school, having friends who had seen teen suicide, sexual abuse, drug addiction, domestic violence, rape, pregnancy scares, etc. And these were all taboo subjects that we could not talk to adults about. We just had this sense that adults were afraid of these topics and would somehow punish us or think we were tainted if we even admitted to knowing about them, let alone having experienced them. That left the door open for all kinds of further abuses and untreated psychological traumas and addictions.

Any book that deals with these unfortunately true subjects in a responsible way should be celebrated by parents and school officials who truly care about children, not feared.

L.T. Elliot said...

I read 13 Reasons and loved it. (I even used it as my Hug-an-Author day post.) I'll definitely check out the other books you've mentioned here because I feel the same way you do--I wished I would have had someone to talk to during hard stuff like this. I wish people had been willing to explain to me that life is sometimes just a hard place and we never really understand the different rocks that people are stuck between.

Excellent post, Tricia. Well done!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks, Bish!

Thank you, Andrea!

@Genie: Suppression always seems to backfire, doesn't it? We'd all be better off with honest discussions on how we can make things better.
And that's what Banned Books Week tries to do is celebrate these authors.

@LT: Great way to put it--we never understand the rocks people are stuck between. So the best we can do is listen and lend a hand, not pretend problems don't exist. Thank you.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent post. Books like these are vital for some kids and adults. They need to be on the shelves and in readers' hands.

Julie Dao said...

This was a terrific post, Tricia. You are so right. Topics like these should not be shoved under the carpet, but brought forth and talked about. These are realities, after all, and it's better that people know about them and learn and teach others how best to deal with these difficult situations.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Jemi: I'm grateful that you are one of those people who makes that happen.

@Julie: Thank you. So much damage is done by those who deny reality.

Donna said...

Beautiful thought-provoking post. This is helpful in my "hobby" of giving books to young people that they might otherwise have missed. Thank you.

Rebecca Gomez said...

Very sensible post! We need to be responsible with books, not be afraid of them.

VR Barkowski said...

Brilliant post, Tricia, thank you. There is a world of difference between banning books and restricting age inappropriate material from younger children. We have to speak up, to get these books into the hands of young readers so they know they're not alone. To ban books because of painful subject matter, to hide our heads in the sand, to deny these voices, is nothing short of immoral.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Donna: Thank you, and I do hope it's helpful!

@Rebecca: That's a great comment. Being afraid of books is absurd, isn't it?

@Viva: Thank you! And, yes, we need to get the books, the words out there.


This post is REAL. Thank you Tricia for sharing, for taking the time to write this.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Excellent post, Tricia. I think I need to read Looking for Alaska, but Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is next on my list.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Victoria: Thank you for your comment and your post. This has been an emotional day for many of us.

@Stephanie: You do need to read it, trust me. Such an excellent book, which really explores the meaning of life and death.

Natasha said...

Thank you for the thoughtprovoking post, Tricia. When I was 15, a girl I thought I knew reasonably well, jumped off the balcony of a fifth floor flat- to this day, I wonder if I could have done anything to stop her. Books like these need to be written, and read in the right spirit.

Claire Dawn said...

13 Reasons is in my top 3 fave books of all time.

I don't know why these people don't challenge the Evening News. Because there's nothing worse in books than there is on the news.

I don't agree with all the American "freedoms," but I really don't get how it's cool that someone can burn a flag, but they shouldn't be able to read about suicide...

Angela Ackerman said...

Such an important post. You nailed that feeling of not understanding and not having anyone who can really explain it. Books are a comfort zone for many, many kids. These topics do need to be tackled to reach those searching for answers.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I have witnessed first hand the tragedy of suicide. Many can be prevented if they can only talk to someone.

Stephen Tremp

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I have witnessed first hand the tragedy of suicide. Many can be prevented if they can only talk to someone.

Stephen Tremp

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Rayna: It's such a helpless feeling, isn't it? One of the problems is people keep so many secrets. From all I've read lately, many teens have written these authors to say how much the books helped them--to not feel alone, to be able to speak up.

@Claire: You're absolutely right. We hear about atrocities all the time, so what's wrong with writing fiction that addresses the problem?

@Angela: Books are a comfort to many kids. A safe place to explore the hurts, to understand they aren't alone.

@Stephen: Welcome, and thank you so much. Indeed, kids need a safe place to talk, and these books can be a starting point for many.

Suzanne Casamento said...

I loved all of these books.

13 Reasons Why because it showed how people's actions directly impact other people and that what someone might consider a tiny incident could be earthshattering to someone else.

Twisted did a great job of showing the cycle of abuse. Speak is one of my all time favorites. The first line alone is genius. Such an important book.

And Looking For Alaska was intoxicating - from start to finish.

Excellent post. Thank you for celebrating these very important reads.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Oh my god Tricia. I just watched Laurie read the poem. Gutwrenching. But so beautiful.

Thank you.

Janet Johnson said...

Great post! I love what you said that there's no reason to ban a book . . . but that we should make sure they're in age appropriate hands. That's the key. Books can offer so much. A lot of subjects are uncomfortable, but those are the ones that can affect us the most.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Suzanne: You put it so perfectly--about the devastating impact of actions and about the cycle of abuse. That's precisely what they're about.
I'm glad you watched the poem video. I was so moved by those words.

@Janet: Sometimes it takes discomfort to shake us up, make us take action against the wrongs. Thank you.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I just read Looking for Alaska last month. Great book. Now I understand why people love John Green. I'm so glad that authors like him and Laurie Halse Anderson are willing to tackle subjects that make people uncomfortable. Kids need all kinds of stories, especially the ones that other people would rather burn.

Em said...

Thanks for the reviews! I recently read "Twisted", have "Looking For Alaska" high up on my to-read list, and just requested the audiobook version of "Th1rteen R3asons Why" from the library (thanks to your review).

Phoenix said...

Thanks for bringing this to light, Tricia. Last week was National Suicide Prevention week so I posted the hopeline number and website on my FB page. I know someone who killed himself and he was in a lot of pain beforehand... I tried talking to him but he would just lash out. I used to beat myself up that I couldn't save him but I know now that he needed serious help and it wasn't my fault.

I also celebrate Banned Book Week because it is important that ideas not be suppressed - that each unique idea, whether we agree with it or not, is celebrated for what it is and never silenced. And kids, more than ever, need to read books where they realize that is okay to break away from the norm and feel and do and say things that society might frown upon - or else they will never be free to be themselves.

Fantastic post.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Sherrie: John Green is becoming a favorite of mine, and I also love Laurie's historical fiction. I, too, am grateful to them for tackling difficult, but needed, stories.

@Em: Yay! Everybody reading this, Em has a contest going on for people reading banned books.

@Phoenix: Thanks so much. We can't always save people, but it's much better to be aware and try than not do anything. It's certainly not your fault. Life is so complex and we never know completely what other people are going through.

Books are a refuge for many, so I hope we can always keep the doors open to them.

Sarah Laurence said...

Well said! Speak is one of my favorite YAs and I liked Twisted too - they work together well. I also loved her Catalyst. Laurie Hals Anderson's fresh writing was part of my motivation for writing YA.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

@Sarah: What a great comment. She really is a fabulous writer. I enjoy her historical fiction, as well.