We affect one another.
Author Jay Asher intentionally affirmed this when he wrote the 2007 young adult suspense novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” about a teen girl who committed suicide and the people who played a role in her decision to do so.
But it wasn’t until after Asher received feedback about his debut book — which became a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller and an international best seller — that he realized the book is not just a nod to the Golden Rule but an anti-bullying anthem.
Now Asher is traveling to one school in every state to talk to teens about the book, published by a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, and the timely issue of bullying.
The 19th stop on his 50 States Against Bullying campaign was North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek on Dec. 1.
Asher gave two 45-minute presentations to a total of about 800 students in ninth through 12th grade, followed by a QA session.
In “Thirteen Reasons Why,” a high schooler named Clay finds a shoe box containing cassette tapes and a map sitting on his porch. His classmate and crush, Hannah, who committed suicide two weeks prior, has explained through recordings 13 reasons why she decided to end her life. As Clay listens to the tapes, using the map to visit the locations Hannah mentions, he discovers each of the reasons, which are actually people, including himself.
During the presentations, Asher explained that the idea for the book was inspired by an audio tour he had taken and by a relative who attempted suicide when she was a teen.
Carmen Horn, a 10th-grader at North Broward Prep, has read the book three times.
“Nothing I’ve read has had this kind of an impact on me like emotionally and actually physically,” said the 16-year-old Lighthouse Point resident, who has read several hundred chapter books, 50 just since summer.
In addition to talking about the publication process and his perseverance despite a dozen publisher rejections, Asher discussed the book’s elements of bullying, such as gossip, and the warning signs for depression and suicide.
“I like having natural opportunities to have conversations with my children about the issues,” said Laura Horn, Carmen’s mother and the school’s Parent-Student-Teacher Association president.
“Books like this — presentations like this especially — give me the opportunity to have those conversations in a really meaningful way.”
In the second half of the presentations, Asher shared some reader reactions to the book.
“Your book made me pick up the phone and call a girl who I knew for a fact was well on her way to meet your character Hannah’s fate and made her talk everything out with me,” one reader wrote in an email. “I skipped dinner and talked to her four hours.”
North Broward Prep was among hundreds of schools across the country that entered a contest to bring Asher to their school.
Back in early 2011, students recommended that Upper School Librarian Cindy Von Oehsen read the book.
“Right away I could tell this would be a powerful force in teens’ lives,” said Von Oehsen.
She asked Headmaster Elise Ecoff to read the book about a year ago, even before the contest, with the thought of bringing Asher there.
“I love the book,” Ecoff said, noting that the school has done a lot of anti-bullying work.
It’s not all about the academics, she said, but also “raising the next generation to be tolerant, to be accepting [and] to be able to live in a global society with people who are very different than them, and so days like this are to me as important, if not more so, than anything else they’re going to do in the classroom all year long.”
The school included “Thirteen Reasons Why” on this past summer’s reading choice lists for high schoolers.
“All my friends were reading it, like everyone was reading it, preparing for him to come, and then we had a book club about it,” said Carmen Horn, who is the secretary of the after-school book club.
In preparation for Asher’s visit, students and parents filled out dozens of #ReasonsWhyYouMatter notecards, on which they wrote reasons they matter. They are displayed on a board in the school’s Learning Commons. There are also 13 cassette tape graphics, each containing a QR code, mounted on the ends of bookshelves.
“You can scan them, and they take you to an audio recording of someone telling a story of how someone impacted their lives positively,” said Horn, who came up with the latter idea.
One student among the 13 who made a recording recounted the time that he face-planted while charging up a staircase on his way to class and how two students immediately ran over to help him gather his scattered belongings.
Though Asher’s book deals with heavy subject matter, he lightened the presentations with humor.
“I was really, really nervous about this tour because I hate being seen as somebody who’s preaching a message,” he said. “… But from the very beginning their reaction has been just beautiful.”
During the QA session, Asher was asked about the book being turned into a movie. Back in 2011, Universal Studios purchased film rights to “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and Asher announced on his website that Selena Gomez is set to play Hannah.
“There’s some really cool movie news that I can’t tell you about,” Asher said is response to the question. “… Once I’m able to announce it, I will.”
Immediately following the QA session, high school principal James Otis issued what he called the gratitude challenge.
“I challenge all of us to thank one person or share some appreciation you have that validates why that person matters — just one, every day from now until the winter break,” he announced.
Afterward, students were sent in batches to the Learning Commons for a book signing, where they were given #ReasonsWhyYouMatter wristbands as a reminder to spread the message that everyone matters. The school sold all 125 copies of the book it had purchased.
Approximately 20 students who are involved in the school’s literary activities and/or are fans of the book, along with some teachers and administrators, then enjoyed a gourmet lunch outside.
Ecoff said the school is incorporating themes from the book, such as inclusion, into teaching lessons and emphasizing the Golden Rule.
“If we can teach them one lesson before they leave high school that sticks with them, it is how important that is,” she said.
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