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 hopeline.com. There are options.