I’ll start by saying as clearly as possible, I believe the women (and others) who have accused young adult literature authors Jay Asher, Sherman Alexie, and James Dashner of sexual harassment and other bad behavior. These popular writers have each accepted varying degrees of responsibility for their actions, and each has received criticism and shaming from various corners of his business and fan bases.
All of this comes into play for me because they are the authors of three books that dozens of students have read with my encouragement: Thirteen Reasons Why, The All-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Maze Runner. These three books have little in common except that they are extremely popular with young readers, and each has ignited a passion for reading in many of my students.
Considering the recent developments involving these authors, I don’t know what to do about these titles. Should I withdraw my endorsements of the books? Should I still encourage students to read them, but temper that encouragement with words of warning about the authors? Should I keep promoting the books and not mention anything about the authors?
It’s easy to say there are plenty of other books available for young readers, and these authors don’t deserve a readership. Although I tend to agree with the second part of that sentiment, I’m not ready to agree to the first part. Yes, there are a lot of other compelling books, but I know for a fact that these books work. They are my go-to books for certain readers, and I’m reluctant to let go of something that works. And after all, the books are not their authors (or are they?).
I understand that encouraging students to read these books means more copies of them will be sold, and Asher, Alexie, and Dashner will gain more monetary profit. That bothers me. However, students who read the books are not sexually harassed by what they find in the pages, and the books do not promote sexual harassment. On the contrary, students derive benefits from reading these books as they engage with the characters, stories, and ideas.
Another aspect of this quandary is that pulling the books from my list of recommended titles feels like a violation of a deeply-held principle of mine: Students should be allowed to read whatever they choose, and all books should be available to them. These books themselves are not worthy of censorship. In fact, in the past I’ve argued with others about the value of not censoring Thirteen Reasons Why and All-True Diary. It seems hypocritical to now shield students from them, not because of their content but because of their authors’ behavior.
But is keeping the books in circulation a slap in the face of the authors’ victims and others? If the answer is Yes, then the books must go. Are readers who have been subjected to this kind of harassment re-humiliated when their teacher promotes a book by a perpetrator? If the answer is Yes, then the books must go.
After thinking through this, I’m forced to admit that maybe the books’ meanings are different now. Is it possible to read the books the same way knowing what we now know about their creators? Probably not. I recently read Jay Asher’s newest book, a graphic novel entitled Piper (recommended to me by a student). I had to read Piper through a new lens, and that lens caused me to see it differently than I would have six months ago.
“What’s best for students?” is usually the guiding question for my educational decision-making, but the answer is not clear this time. What aspects of this dilemma am I missing? How have other educators handled books by these authors? Do you still approve students who want to read Thirteen Reasons Why? Are The Maze Runner and its sequels still on the shelves of your classroom and school libraries? Is The All-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian still in your curriculum? How did you decide?
Thank you for reading, and especially for your insights.