Book conference to feature mental health panels, author of ’13 Reasons Why’ to speak

Katie Daniels

Jay Asher’s upcoming appearance at YAS Book Conference has sparked some concerns among parents and the community.

Since the release of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” the topic of teen suicide – and how fiction should or should not represent it – has been a heated discussion. Asher published the book in 2007.

Sara Volpi, coordinator of the SOKY Bookfest and Literary Outreach at WKU Libraries, said the book didn’t meet the type of harsh criticism that it now receives when the book first appeared in the market.

“It was before social media took over the world,” Volpi said. “It was before the internet was as much of a presence in our lives as it is now, but I think some of its appeal was that no one else was writing about teen suicide.”

In 2017, the controversy has become a case of not judging the book by the Netflix series.

Roxanne Spencer, an associate professor, and coordinator at the Educational Resource Center at WKU has not watched the Netflix series, but she has read about it.

She said she has talked with many people who expressed issues with it. She said her concern is the producers of the show might have glorified many of the tragic episodes in the book for dramatic effect, and people who’ve lived through such tragedy might not have “space in their head or their heart to be able to make that distinction.”

“If they feel truly isolated and can’t talk to anyone about that, that’s what concerns me,” Spencer said.

Volpi credits the Netflix series with helping the book get to even more people, but she recognizes the problems of the TV adaptation, and actively encourages people to read the book before making a judgment about its message.

“Part of the issue with the show is that Netflix changed some main plot points,” Volpi said. “If people aren’t comparing the show with the original book, it’s really hard to take a stand because a lot of people who I’ve talked to who have issues with the show, have issues just with the show. They don’t know that there’s a book.”

Veronica Rain, youth services manager at the Warren County Public Library, said there were a lot of creative liberties taken with the film adaptation.

“Based on many of the opinions I have heard from others, this made a world of difference in understanding Jay Asher’s message,” Rain said. “Suicide is a concerning topic, and rightfully so, but this book also presents the opportunity for open dialogue about the taboo surrounding mental illness.”

Spencer said she believes knowledge is always better than ignorance.

“There’s always a big noise when there’s a controversial book,” she said. “[Jay Asher] has heard from hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers telling him how important that book was to them, and how much they were inspired to get help or learn more about themselves, and it put them in a positive path.”

13 Reasons Why is listed on the Frequently Challenged YA Books on ala.org. It is accompanied there by 292 other titles including many of the well-known tested classics, but also newer works such as “Ender’s Game”, the “Hunger Games” trilogy and Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.”

Nothing else by Neil Gaiman or Orson Scott Card appeared on the list.

“Most books that have faced challenges can be readily found via bannedbooksweek.org or through the American Library Association,” Rain said. These lists are organized by year and feature almost every popular book you’ve ever heard of. 13 Reasons Why is accompanied by the “Harry Potter” series, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, “The Holy Bible” and many more.”

Volpi said she takes these challenges as an incentive to reach out to people who have concerns.

“I want to make sure they have a place to come and voice their concern and their opinions and get answers from professionals,” Volpi said. “So we found people on campus who are willing to offer their time and expertise and talk about it.”

The mental health panels will be taking place in various locations in the weeks leading up to the YAS book conference. The next one is being held on campus on Oct. 10 in the Russell H. Miller Theatre in the Fine Arts Center, at 7 p.m. All the panelists work in either the counseling and testing center or are professors in psychological science. Megan Harden, CEO of the Cognitive Refinery, will also participate.

Volpi said she wants to let people know those with questions about their mental health or mental health, in general, can talk to the experts after the panel or around campus.

“Librarians’ views tend to be: things happen,” Spencer said. “People write about it. The highest purpose of fiction and non-fiction is to educate or illuminate ideas. And when children or young adults are able to read something that positively inspires them, that’s the highest goal in any fiction or non-fiction.”

YAS Book Conference will take place Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20 and 21 in downtown Bowling Green. September is Suicide Awareness month, and October is National Depression Awareness month, so Volpi said the timing of these issues and the scheduling of the YAS book conference, while unintentional, is well-suited. Jay Asher will be speaking to local students on Friday, and signing books Saturday. Thirty-five other authors have been invited, whose work spans a range of contemporary issues.

To learn more about YAS Book Con, Jay Asher, and the other guests who will be appearing, visit yasbookcon.org.