Curiosity vs. Contemplation: Understanding Teen ‘Suicide Books’

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill, Blend Images /Getty Images

Did you come across a copy of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why or Hold Still by Nina LaCour on your teen’s nightstand? Or did you overhear, from the back of the minivan, teens talking about By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Ann Peters? Or maybe you saw, at the YA room at your library, a whole display of suicide-themed books, from the titles above to Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard or Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.

Take a deep breath.

The fact that your kid is choosing books whose characters contemplate or commit suicide, or deal with its fallout, doesn’t mean she’s reading them as anything like a primer. She’s just … interested.

Though it may seem to be a trend, suicide as a subject is a reflection and an outgrowth of the popularity of YA books in general, says Kelly Jensen, a former youth-services librarian in Wisconsin who’s now associate editor and community manager for Book Riot.

“As YA has grown in the last seven to ten years, so have the ways big topics are explored. The success of books like Thirteen Reasons Why probably helped open the door to some of the other titles out there by showing that a book that tackles a huge topic could not only be successful, it could be written in a really appealing and authentic way for teen readers.”

Here, a few reasons teens pull books about suicide from the shelves:

It’s a maturity thing: Your relatively more sophisticated tween/teen is developmentally more ready to read about tougher stuff. “Tweens and teens can think at a deeper, more abstract level than younger kids, so they tend to enjoy grappling with important meaning-of-life questions,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist and creator of a new video series for parents called Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.

It’s an authenticity/validation thing: Don’t think your kid’s reaching for these books for the subject so much as for the authentic emotionality the best of these books display. Young people are attracted to reading about characters dealing with uncomfortable feelings, whatever they are, and doing so in ways that ring true to them, says Jensen. Plus, reading about characters dealing with the hard issues is validating for them – and teens are always looking for someone to relate to, says Kennedy-Moore. These characters often fit that bill.

It’s a curiosity thing: While your teen (or any kid reading these books) may not be dealing personally with depression or suicidal thoughts, the chances are good that they know someone who is, or will. “These books help kids build empathy,” says Jensen, which can help them when they do encounter, say, a friend who is depressed. And for those teens who are personally dealing with these heavy topics, “the books create an opportunity to see themselves in the characters and have empathy for themselves,” says Jensen.

Bottom line? As a parent, if you see books about suicide on your kid’s nightstand, don’t worry. In fact, “Be thrilled your kid is reading, and thrilled he or she is seeking out solid books,” says Jensen. That said, you know your child best, so pay attention to what she’s doing and how she’s acting when she’s not nose-deep in a book. Does she have good friends? Is she managing school and other responsibilities? Be alert for changes in mood, says Kennedy-Moore. “Try to spend enjoyable, non-demanding time together, because having warm and supportive relationships with parents matters to kids of every age,” no matter what she’s reading.


Additional Resources for Parents and Teens: