Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Young adult literature tackles serious issues

03/15/2019 - 2pm
Madison Suseland, Joe Coti, Nicolle Brunn

Young adult literature is one of Southwestern Michigan College English instructor Joe Coti’s passions.

For a March 13 program sponsored by the Fred L. Mathews Library, Coti compared and contrasted 2007’s 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and 2012’s The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The former spawned a Netflix series which departed significantly from the book. The latter became a movie for which Green retained creative control.

“I think (13 Reasons Why) is the single best book ever written for young adults ages 15-18,” Coti said. “I don’t think there’s a parent or a teenager who should not have read this book for what it’s done in terms of families talking to their children. The most important difference between the book and the Netflix series is the book ends with a really hopeful future for the kids in the story by what Clay does during the closing pages. It was a wonderful and optimistic ending of the novel.”

Coti showed Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why trailer, “which is all about blood, sex and rock and roll. That’s what Hollywood does. They took away and changed vital things in the book, although a great deal of it is good and beautifully done. I just don’t like the way they messed with the storyline. In the book, there’s no mention of how she dies. The book isn’t about suicide, it’s about things high school kids do to each other. Young adult fiction deals with issues kids face all the time. The driving force of much of children’s literature is very serious and dark.”

In the story, two weeks after character Hannah’s death, classmate Clay, who had a crush on her, finds a box containing tapes she made enumerating her decision. The 2017 Netflix series lacked any mention of depression or input from mental health professionals, who felt it glorified suicide, the second-leading cause of death (behind car crashes) among ages 15-24.

Two of Coti’s creative non-fiction students, dual-enrolled Cassopolis Ross Beatty High School senior Madison Suseland and Bangor business major Nicolle Brunn, contributed.

“I don’t think the show is exploitative,” Suseland said. “The book and show are two very different stories. The book is more about Hannah and Clay and struggles she went through. The show expands on the characters, like the boy whose mother has a string of abusive boyfriends who hit and choke him. Characters in the show have a slew of problems. It’s about their motivations.”

Brunn noted the explosion of social media since the book’s publication so bullying or embarrassing photographs can spread instantly to huge audiences. “It compounds struggles teens have in high school,” Coti agreed. “Asher wrote the book because he wanted to open a dialogue after a close relative Hannah’s age attempted suicide.”

“It’s helpful to read about these things because it gives you a sense you’re not alone,” Brunn said. “Hannah felt alone, like she couldn’t get help from anyone. Both the book and the show opens up that this happens everywhere. It’s okay to reach out. You can always find someone willing to help you. It also makes you more aware of the effect small comments have and to think twice about what you say.”

“In almost all the stories I wrote earlier in my career, the narrator was a kid,” Coti said. “Teen emotions are sky-high, then in two minutes they’re down in the sewer. Young adult literature gives an author with a teen voice the ability to explore an extremely wide range of emotions, though for me young adult is about dragons, witches and vampires. My first impulse was to not talk about 13 Reasons Why at all, but it’s such an important book.”

Dual-enrolled Cassopolis student Madison Suseland and Bangor business major Nicolle Brunn assisted with Joe Coti’s Mathews Conference Center lecture. Suseland is interested in majoring in English for an editing/publishing career. Coti’s shirt is a Library of Congress souvenir from a Washington vacation to peruse rare children’s literature.