Before taking her own life, a teen records seven cassettes to be circulated to 12 peers, explaining how each played a role in triggering the spiraling depression that led to her suicide. This is the chilling premise of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, released by Razorbill in 2007. The novel has spent more than 130 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has been published in 35 countries, and has more than 1.6 million copies in print in the U.S. alone.
Though Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t directly address bullying, it underscores the importance of recognizing the potential impact of one’s words and actions. Thousands of teens from all over the world have posted comments on the book’s website about how the novel has affected their lives, and the book has been widely used by educators and health professionals as an anti-bullying resource. Penguin Books for Young Readers hopes to further spread the message with its yearlong 50 States Against Bullying campaign, highlighted by a multi-leg national tour that will send Asher to at least one school in every state from October 2014 to May 2015.
PYRG has partnered with School Library Journal to stage a kickoff webcast on March 3, live-streamed from the Little Red School House, a private school in New York City. Asher will announce the campaign and tour, talk about his inspiration for Thirteen Reasons Why, and discuss reader reactions.
At the end of his presentation, Asher will direct teachers and librarians to the campaign website, where they can nominate their schools to be among those the author visits on the tour. Nominations will be accepted through March. The March 3 webcast will be available for viewing on the SLJ website one week after the live event. Penguin will post the footage on the campaign website in the fall.
Carmela Iaria, executive director of school and library marketing for PYRG, explained that the overwhelming reaction from readers on the book’s website and the current national spotlight on the effects of bullying inspired the tour. “We want the tour to amplify the rallying together that teen readers are doing, and unite the movement on a national level by sending Jay all over the country,” she said. “Teens find him very relatable, so he’s a great anti-bullying spokesperson.”
PYRG will support the 50-state tour, which Iaria calls “by far the biggest we’ve ever done,” on the campaign’s website with features that include a map showcasing Asher’s tour stops; resources for teachers; a link to the author’s blog; and photos and videos of Asher and the teens he encounters on his tour. “Our goal with the site is to include as many teens as possible, and attract the attention of local media, so that everyone will become attached to the anti-bullying cause,” Iaria said.
Opening a Crucial Conversation
Though pleased to be the voice of the 50 States Against Bullying campaign, Asher said he has found it interesting that so many readers have linked Thirteen Reasons Why with that theme. “I had a close relative attempt suicide in high school, and nine years after that, the idea for the novel came to me,” he said. “It really surprised me when people started calling it a book about bullying, but it made me realize that people are more honest and open now about what bullying is, and recognize that it’s not just stereotypic things like slamming someone into a school locker.”
Asher, who has been invited to speak at many schools since the novel’s publication, including those affected by recent teen suicides, has seen firsthand that educators are using Thirteen Reasons Why as a teaching tool. “Novels are a safe way to talk about things,” he said, “and to let teens know that we do affect each other for good or for bad, and everyone has different issues they’re dealing with and different thresholds they can handle. It’s important to make teens realize the influence they have over others.”
The author called the success of Thirteen Reasons Why “bittersweet”: the novel has sparked important conversation among teens, and among teens and adults, but, he said, it also addresses our ineptitude at communicating. “One of the reasons I wanted to write this novel is that so many times people are feeling things deeply, but we’re not great about talking about it,” he said. “I don’t think the novel would have taken off as it did if we were more open about sharing. So many teens have told me that reading my book was the first time they felt understood. I think that’s great – but also sad.”
In addition to spreading the anti-bullying word, Asher hopes his tour accomplishes another mission. “Of course I always like going to bookstores, but at stores you’re mostly meeting kids who are already into reading,” he said. “I really love visiting schools – in fact that’s my favorite part of being an author now – even though I still get stage fright! When I visit schools, I know I’m going to be talking to some kids who don’t like to read. I love thinking that maybe hearing what I have to say will open them up to books and inspire them to say, ‘Maybe I should check this reading thing out.’ ”