Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why
By: Jay Asher
Published by: Razor Bill Books (Division of Penguin)
US Release date: Oct. 18, 2007
Buy it at Amazon
Suitable for age 13 and up (maybe older)
Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker’s high school experience, and how it leads to her eventual decision to commit suicide. Hannah explains, through cassette tapes delivered after her death, how several people wronged her- and how their stories all intertwine.
Synopsis, from the book's website:
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker--his classmate and crush--who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list. Through Hannah and Clay's dual narratives, debut author Jay Asher weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that will deeply affect teen readers.
I had to read this one with two brains at once; my usual mode is to read books as the 15-year-old me in my head, but for this book, I also needed my middle-aged school counselor voice. The rating represents the compromise between the two.
My adolescent self loved, loved, loved the sense that there is so much subtext in teen interaction. Most of the scenes in the book were so very authentic because we got to hear the actual conversation along with Hannah’s interpretation- we got a play-by-play that teens will be able to relate to.
The adult in me was frustrated by the fact that Hannah, as most teens do, didn’t see until it was too late that much of the subtext was only valid in the context of her own experience. No one else saw what she was experiencing because she’s the only one who possibly could put those pieces together, unless she shared it- and she didn’t- while she lived, at least.
I very much enjoyed that the story is framed by the experience of one particular person listening to the tapes- the very likeable Clay. He is a genuinely nice person, and having him accompany me through Hannah’s tale was comforting. It was also really useful to ground the story in Clay’s journey, since he was offering his own memories along the way to balance Hannah’s.
I am very excited about this book as an example of just how devastating bullying can be, in all its forms. I champion the idea of bibliotherapy, discussing books as a way of working through issues in one’s own life. This book could be a very powerful tool in the hands of the right professional working with kids. Of course it could also be a genuinely life-changing experience for the right kid.
My one worry, as an adult who works with kids, is that readers don’t get a clear enough sense that Hannah is not playing fair. She accuses and blames, but only after her death, when those at whom she points the finger don’t have the chance to respond. Through Hannah’s eyes, most of them couldn’t possibly have a valid excuse- and in terms of dealing with this as a case of bullying, that’s the only perception that counts, that’s true. What we don’t know is all those other kids’ back story: why they made the choices they did. They deserve a chance to have their stories heard as well. For this reason, I would absolutely love to see Mr. Asher continue. Follow up with these guys, Jay. Where are they a year after Hannah’s death? How has it changed them? How is it just one more tragic event they’ve endured? Because in the end, it is the story of the living that really matters, because those are the ones we can actually do something about.
Is it a great read? Yes, absolutely. Are there kids who shouldn’t read it? Probably. This is one that adults need to make a judicious decision about for their own children. Are there adults who shouldn’t read it? No- especially if you work with kids, this is a must-read. Beware, though: it’s not breezy and light. You need to be prepared, because it’s a true gut-check.