Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Awards: California Book Award, Georgia Peach Honor Book Award, South Carolina Book Award
Summary: Hannah Baker is the new kid in high school, and since freshman year her life seems to have been one traumatic incident after another. After several cries for help that go unanswered, she ends up committing suicide, but not before recording a set of cassette tapes voicing her grievances and orchestrating a plan for them to be passed along to the thirteen people who have wronged her, the thirteen “reasons” she killed herself. Clay Jensen is one recipient of the tapes, and the reader follows his journey as he works his way through each story, finally reaching his own part in Hannah’s tale.
Analysis: I waver between how much credit I give this book. I think that Jay Asher had a noble purpose and message for the book, but that it falls short in its delivery. Hannah’s voiceover and re-telling of events does a decent job of illustrating that even minor events can have major consequences, especially as a young adult. Peers do have an influence, a rather large one in middle and high school. If it makes even one student consider the ramifications before acting, then this book is worth it.
However, I think the idea that she orchestrated the tapes and her tone in some of them feel petty, as if the gesture’s sentiment is “I’ll make you pay for hurting me,” instead of “I want you to understand how your actions affected me.” I think this is dangerous, as it plays depression and suicide into the light of just being an angry teenager, instead of a situation where teens truly feel they have no other option. Her message seems melodramatic and overly didactic, seemingly beating readers over the head with a message we’re all used to hearing- how we *should* be treating other people. This is definitely an instance of telling instead of showing, and showing would have been much more powerful. At times it came close to being cleverly crafted, but in the end I feel that it fell short. It could have had more of an impact had Clay had more of a hand in Hannah’s demise, coming to regret his own actions and change at the end. This would put a voice to the other side, possibly causing readers to feel themselves mirrored in the bullying. Instead Clay seems a bit like the archetypical choir boy, effectively distancing the bullying as something that the “villains” of the story are a part of and leaving readers guilt-free. A sad story, perhaps, but a mistake that other people make. We can pretend that we are the Clays of the world, and shake our metaphorical fingers at the Justins, Jessicas, Alexs, Tylers, Courtneys, Ryans, and other bullies of the world. Maybe I just prefer books that blur the lines of black and white a bit more than Asher does in this novel. I wanted to be touched by this book, but the portrayal of a very real and complicated scenario felt a little bit two-dimensional for my taste.
That all being said, I re-iterate that if this book reachers even a few readers then it is still worth owning. (I read just as many positive reviews on Goodreads as negative, so I suspect it does/can impact several readers.)
I would hesitate to place it in the hands of middle-schoolers or immature freshmen without heavy guidance and discussion due to the rape scene at the end, but, without knowing a better alternative, I think it could be helpful for discouraging bullying and preventing suicide.