October 1 marks the kickoff to Penguin Young Readers Group’s 50 States Against Bullying tour, a culmination of a yearlong campaign that is raising awareness of the importance of compassion and the need to recognize the potentially hurtful impact of one’s words and actions. The campaign ties in to Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 2007), in which a teen, before taking her own life, records cassettes explaining to 12 peers the roles they played in her spiraling depression. Asher’s tour will take him to all 50 states and Washington, D.C. between October – National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month – and early spring 2015. The author’s first stop is his alma mater, San Luis Obispo High School in California, after which he’ll move on to Texas, Kansas, and Illinois.
The seeds of the tour were planted last March, when PYRG partnered with School Library Journal to host a webcast, which was live-streamed from the Little Red School House in Manhattan. During the event, Asher discussed how Thirteen Reasons Why has resonated with readers and inspired empathy and anti-bullying discussion in schools. He also announced the 50 States Against Bullying tour and encouraged teachers and librarians to visit the campaign’s website to nominate their schools to be included on his itinerary.
During March, the publisher received more than 700 nominations from schools in each state, which “greatly exceeded our expectations,” said Carmela Iaria, executive director of school and library marketing for PYRG. “We saw a tremendous response from educators, administrators, and school librarians across the country,” she added. “Entries started pouring in immediately after the webcast, and the proposals ranged from small private schools to large public schools to entire districts with multiple campuses. It was inspiring to see so many people interested in such an important cause. So many of the applications were so thoughtful and energetic, we had a hard time choosing!”
Iaria noted that the publisher is hopeful that the reach of the 50 States Against Bullying tour extends beyond the cities and towns Asher visits. “So far there has been a ton of early interest from local media on his tour stops, including print, TV, and radio, and we’re expecting lots more to come,” she said. “We’ve seen visits to the campaign website increase each day. We also hope that teens not along Jay’s tour route get involved by spreading words of acceptance and understanding using the hashtag #ReasonsWhyYouMatter. The issue of bullying remains as prevalent as ever, and this tour gives Jay and Penguin an opportunity to take a very public stand against it.”
Taking a Key Message on the Road
Reflecting that “everything about Thirteen Reasons Why has gone far beyond my expectations,” Asher was gratified by the enthusiastic response to the tour, and to the obvious appreciation for his novel’s underlying message. “On school visits, I always make sure to tell students there’s a deeper meaning behind my being there,” he said. “It means the faculty at their school took the issues in my book seriously and weren’t afraid to tackle these uncomfortable topics.”
One bookseller who said she was “very, very honored” to coordinate Asher’s visit to her town is Vivien B. Jennings, founder and president of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan. On October 3, the author will appear at Shawnee Mission East High School, where he will address 1,680 students. “Our students love Thirteen Reasons Why, and we realize how important it is to get kids engaged in dialogue about the issues it addresses,” Jennings said. “It is so important that they realize why their actions matter, and that it only takes one person to stem the tide of bullying and turn it in a different direction.”
On October 14, Asher will travel to Alabama to give two presentations to 1,600 students at Fairhope High School. Karin Wilson, president of Page & Palette, is coordinating the visit; in preparation for it, her store donated 100 copies of Thirteen Reasons Why to the school for students to read. “Within two days, all of the copies had been checked out,” she said. “The novel tackles an important subject in a way that is not preachy, but gets young people talking about it. I think this author’s visit is going to have a huge impact on our community, and we’re very excited to be a part of it.”
Estimating that he has spoken to young readers in “a little over half of the states,” Asher said he’s eager to visit the rest of them. “I just bought a beautiful map of the U.S. for my son, who turns four in December, so he can follow along from home,” he said. “I’m particularly looking forward to my whole family joining me in Alaska. None of us has been there before.”
Asher explained that his tour presentation will address bullying from various angles, “because there are so many ways to approach the issue, and I know that different things reach people differently.” He also underscored the benefit of addressing students together, on their home ground. “One of the main ideas in my book is that you can go to school with the same people year after year, but never fully know what else they’re dealing with in life,” he explained. “Also, everyone has different thresholds for what they can handle. Having these ideas presented in an accessible and personal way, knowing all of your classmates are hearing the same message, has a real effect. At every stop on this tour, I’ll encourage students and faculty to continue pursuing a more open and understanding school after my visit. After all, that’s really why they’re inviting me in.”