Random Musings on 13 Reasons Why

I read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher a few years ago. At the time, I appreciated it for the enmeshed perspectives of Hannah and Clay and the partly-realistic portrayal of high school life in a small town. For a book that deals with suicide, I remembered it as having a rather hopeful ending, even after Hannah seemingly shreds anyone she felt played a role in her demise.

Then I watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. (I binge-watched the entire thing over a long weekend–probably not the best decision I’ve ever made.) I had mostly avoided any reviews and critiques of the series because I had already read the book, so I knew the basic gist of each episode. Well, I thought I knew. Of course, the creators took a wealth of creative license in developing the screen version. Hannah’s and Clay’s parents and secondary characters like Alex and Jessica are far more fleshed out as we witness their perspectives of the before and after. Each new episode felt darker than the last, and I found myself feeling really sad for Hannah and for Clay and for Mrs. Bradley. By the time I finished the last episode, I was beginning to understand the backlash that was building. Just a simple google of “13 Reasons Why” will return multiple articles lambasting the program as irresponsible and dangerous. And I don’t necessarily disagree. That discussion would probably be better served in a separate post.

So I decided to reread the book. Lucky for me, my classroom copy actually came back! (Thanks, Danny!) I dropped it in my bag and reintroduced myself to the Hannah and Clay I had first met. I found myself checking off a list of differences: Clay walks around the city in the book, and he rides a bike in the series; Hannah’s parents own a shoe store in the book, and they own a drug store in the series; and Hannah’s suicide in the book is not as graphic as it is in the series. The clearest difference for me, though, was Hannah’s attitude. She recognizes that “No matter what [she’s] said so far, no matter who [she’s] spoken of, it all comes back to…[Hannah]” (Asher 253). And while she doesn’t say it outright, she’s clearly clinically depressed. The series doesn’t go far enough in exploring these ideas, though, and I think that’s where it misses the mark.

The message in both is still the same, “Everything…affects everything” (202). Every action has a consequence, and every effect has a cause. The difference is in how we respond in those situations. We are in control of our own reactions to the way someone treats us. We have the power to choose to speak up when we see something wrong. And when we recognize those strengths, we reclaim our responsibility to ourselves.


Come Together

Alternate title: “Break Those Chains That Bind You”

I’m now reading my tenth book since school started, a book that was published in 2008. It’s a book by my favorite author, but I haven’t read it until now because 1. it’s historical fiction (not a genre I am usually drawn to) and 2. the target audience is middle-grade kids. Let’s go ahead and bust those myths: I do like historical fiction, and this book does not read like any middle school book I’ve ever encountered! The book? Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Chains cover

Chains is set in New York during the American Revolution. The book follows Isabel, a 13-year-old slave, through trials of betrayal, loss, and punishment. There may be some redemption in the end, but I can only predict that because I just started Part II.

On the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Isabel witnesses the celebration in the streets. When the crowd surrounds and lassos the statue of King George III on the Bowling Green, “Common folk stood froze at the sight of a king being pulled down by the strength of the men working together” (125). This quote neatly sums up the entire revolution. It took people working for a common goal to overthrow their opposition.

This lesson is still relevant today, especially when our country feels so divided. We’re so quick to sort out the red and the blue, the white and the not white, the haves and the have nots that we forget that we all are striving for the same ideals that Thomas Jefferson and others sought 240 years ago: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even the Pledge of Allegiance calls for us to be “indivisible” as a nation, “with liberty and justice for all,” not just some. The sooner we realize that this common bond can unify us, the sooner we can divert ourselves from the path of discord that we appear to be on.


Carpe Diem!

urlMy reading is going well! I’ve reintroduced the habit to my nighttime ritual, and I feel like I’m sleeping better as a result. I just started reading Since You Asked by Maurene Goo, a YA book about a high school sophomore dealing with the consequences of a major mistake. I’m almost finished with Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni. It’s a nonfiction book about the craze surrounding college admissions, and Bruni makes the case that there’s more to be earned from college than a degree.

In Chapter 5 “Beyond the Comfort Zone,” Bruni discusses branching out from your usual setting to discover other perspectives. He interviews multiple people who support the idea that no matter what job you have, you will be dealing with people of all sorts in some form or fashion, and “college campuses are the perfect place … to learn that” (108).

My high school is one of the most diverse in the area, and the kids are lucky to have opportunities to meet others who don’t look like them. There’s a club or organization for pretty much every interest. However, I wonder sometimes if there’s some self-insulation going on, if they don’t take those chances to step outside their homogenous groups to have a conversation with someone they deem “different.” We have a tendency as humans to stick with what we know because that familiarity provides safety. But what if we took a risk? What would happen if you chose a different seat in class next to a kid you’ve never really talked to? What would happen if you joined your lunch table with the one next to you and shared a meal with a different crowd? I can tell you what wouldn’t happen: the sky would not fall in, and the world would not stop turning. As a matter of fact, your life might be so enriched by crossing that line that you’ll wonder why you ever waited so long to do it! You don’t have to wait until college to broaden your horizons with perspectives of “other” people. You can do it right here in this high school! And when you rise to the next level, you’ll be just that much more prepared than your peers who decided not to accept the challenge.

(Dead Poets Society teaches this lesson best!)

Buried Lines

I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping up with my reading goals. In addition to reading during allotted class time, I’m also reading every night for at least 30 minutes, and I finished two AP-list books, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I struggled with both books: Hurston used a precise dialect that I had trouble navigating, and Hemingway’s lack of commas drove me crazy. I also completed Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, a historical fiction novel set in 1950s New Orleans. Josie is probably one of the most confident characters I’ve met in a while, and I really enjoy Sepetys’ knack for fitting in the right line at the right time. (For more about the power of the right line, see Mrs. Friend’s blog about her encounter with Sepetys at the NTTBF in April–3rd paragraph from the bottom.)

On Josie’s 18th birthday, her friend Cokie gives her a very thoughtful gift. And with that gift comes this beautiful advice.

“Sometimes we set off down a road thinkin’ we’re goin’ one place and we end up another. But that’s okay. The important thing is to start” (163).

Josie’s dream is to get out of New Orleans. When she meets Charlotte, a Smith College student, she sets her sights on Massachusetts as her next destination. She wants so badly to leave the over-familiarity and oppressiveness of the place where she grew up, but she’s frozen by her own fear and perceived obstacles. Cokie’s encouraging words serve as a reminder that our plans don’t always go how we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt them.

This wasn’t a welcome sign for me.

When I left my hometown of Coffeyville, KS, to attend college in Pittsburg, KS, I swore I would never return. As a mid-year graduate, however, my choice was made for me. I begrudgingly packed my things and moved back to the small town (not that Pittsburg was all that much larger, but it wasn’t Coffeyville!). I may not have known everyone in the town anymore, but it sure seemed like they knew me–probably because they knew one of my many relatives. I felt like a failure, but the luxury of hindsight reveals that what I saw as three steps backward was not nearly as bad as if I had never left to begin with. And having left once before made it easy when it was time to relocate to Dallas.

We don’t always know where the road we’re on will lead, but we have to take that first step if we want to find out.

PS: The whole line-discovery thing reminds me of “The Secret” by Denise Levertov. Authors don’t always intend for a line to carry as much weight as readers usually find in it.

Observations on Modern Romance

Goodreads tells me that I’m 2 books behind on my goal of 60 books for the year. I’m not worried–I know I’ll catch up this summer. Continuing my journey outside my usual reads, I started yet another nonfiction book, Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. (Note: I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to my students. It’s definitely adult-themed, but I’m an adult, so…)

I’m surprised that this book is so well-researched. I only know Ansari from Parks and Recreation, and while he’s quite witty, I certainly didn’t expect the book to be as fact-based and informative as it is. He could have easily drawn on personal anecdotes from his own dating experience to fill all of the pages, but these stories sit mostly in the margins of the book.

I wonder how much more relationships will change in the future. The book does a great job of comparing and contrasting dating through the ages, showing how people in the 1950s ended up marrying those who live nearby while people in the 2000s seek out partners in places far from home. The way people meet has also changed drastically. In the past, it was more organic: you would meet a mate through a friend or family member. As technology advanced and the Internet emerged, people discovered online dating to meet new people. What’s next? Virtual relationships where people live in entirely different countries yet still carry on affairs through Skype and texting? Actually, I’m pretty sure this is already happening.

Finally, I noticed that Ansari mentions his current girlfriend. I haven’t read far enough to know if he tells the story of how they met and if it fits in with all of the advice that he’s giving. I think it gives his book more credibility in that he’s writing as someone who has endured the world of dating and found success in a relationship. It gives a little hope to those who may think they’ll be forever alone.


I just finished reading The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, a book outside my usual reads (I say that only because it’s nonfiction). It’s the story of two men named Wes Moore whose lives start off similarly but later venture down drastically different paths. It’s a really great book with excellent lessons, the most important being the idea of ubuntu.

Ubuntu is the Xhosa word for humanity. Moore expands on the term when he retells the story of having tea with his host mother while studying in South Africa. As she relates her experience during the period of apartheid in the country, Moore is amazed by the lack of anger in her voice. He asks her how she was able to forgive those who tormented her and her husband, and she tells him, “‘Because Mr. Mandela asked us to'” (168). It was in that moment that Moore understood ubuntu.

The common bond of humanity and decency that we share is stronger than any conflict, any adversity, any challenge. Fighting for your convictions is important. But finding peace is paramount. Knowing when to fight and when to seek peace is wisdom. Ubuntu was right. (168)

How I wish more people subscribed to this ideal! In this world today, people seem to be more divided than ever. We’re so quick to find fault or be offended by what others say about any topic that it’s impossible to be at peace. And I feel like the Internet has exacerbated the issue. It’s so easy to sit at a keyboard and spout off whatever we think about whatever is happening in the world without thinking of the human element. I admire people who are strong in their convictions, even when I may not agree with their opinion. However, a voiced (or typed, in the case of the Internet) disagreement shouldn’t be grounds for ad hominem attacks or threats. I see these interactions every day on my city’s Facebook group, and all I can do is shake my head and wonder if the same exchange would take place if the participants were face-to-face. I like to think they might be a little kinder in person.

In this day and age, what it boils down to is you can be happy or you can be right. Lately, I find it better for my sanity to choose happy.

Make Up Your Own Mind

My students are blogging about their books this week, so I thought I’d use this entry to follow suit. My goal is to read at least 20 minutes a night. I’ve been trying to step outside my usual reads to get into more nonfiction; however, the book I recently finished represents a return to my comfort zone of young adult fiction. And while the genre was familiar, it was immediately clear that this book would not be like the others.

Set in 1950s Virginia, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley shares the experiences of two very different high school girls during the battle for civil rights. Sarah’s family and community waged a court battle to get equal educational opportunities for black students, and the book begins as they attempt to enter the front doors of Jefferson High, the (previously) all-white school. Linda’s family and community are vehemently opposed to the decision and make their dissent clear as they stop at very little to create an unwelcome environment for the ten new students. Eventually, Sarah and Linda are thrown together to work on a class project, and everything they thought was true is questioned.

“Other people will try to decide things for you,” [Sarah] said. “They’ll try to tell you who you are. Remember, no matter what they say, you’re the only one who really decides.”

Clearly one of the major, overarching themes of the book, this advice is passed on by Sarah to her younger sister, Ruth, near the end of the story. As Sarah endures her journey through her senior year of high school, her adversaries attempt to define who she is by placing her in remedial classes instead of the upper level courses she was in at her old school and by abusing her both physically and verbally. Sarah does not allow these tactics to designate who she is; instead, she rises above the fray and trudges through each day, determined to graduate despite the unjust conditions.

While circumstances are not quite as dire for Linda, she, too, eventually decides to discover her own path. Her thoughts on the whole situation were instilled by her father and classmates. As she gets to know Sarah, her compassion takes over, and those ideas begin to die off, no matter how frequently and forcefully others try to replant them. In the end, Linda successfully uproots herself from the toxic environment.

This message is so important still today. When we feel like others are trying to tell us how to think and feel, we must search our own minds and hearts to find our own truth. And if the truth we discover doesn’t align with what we’ve been told, we must look for the courage to allow ourselves to separate from those who may want to hold us back.