Youth Reads: Thirteen Reasons Why


(Note: This review contains major spoilers.)

“Do not take me for granted . . . again.”

Clay Jensen can’t believe it. It’s Hannah Baker’s voice, coming out of the old stereo in his garage. But Hannah Baker is dead. One day she didn’t show up at school, and then the word began to leak out: Hannah had killed herself.

But now Clay is finding out that she did one last thing before she died. She recorded her story on cassette tapes, and mailed them to a classmate. Her instructions are clear: “Rule number one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on.” In all, 13 people are scheduled to receive Hannah’s tapes: 12 students and one teacher. Thirteen people who affected her life in different, ineradicable ways. And none of them, after listening to her story, will be the same.

Thirteen Reasons Why,” the popular debut novel by Jay Asher, is a dark and sobering read. Hannah’s story is full of the grim details that characterize so much of teenage life today, the kind of details that adults hate to think about.

There was the date who trapped Hannah in a restaurant booth and tried to molest her. There was the classmate who spied on her through her bedroom window. The girl who pretended to be her friend just to use her, and the girl who involved her in a drunk-driving accident. The guy who raped a drunk girl at a party, not knowing that Hannah was an inadvertent witness. The kids who made fun of her, the kids who spread rumors and told lies about her, and the kids who believed all the rumors and lies.

All these incidents piled up into one big “snowball,” leaving Hannah feeling alone, betrayed, and helpless. In addition, her parents, preoccupied with business troubles, didn’t have much time for her. And the teacher she tried to confide in, in a last-ditch effort to save herself, finally sent her over the edge.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” is a book that’s been frequently challenged in schools and libraries, for reasons that are probably obvious. Letting a young reader explore the mind of a teenager this troubled, in a setting this dark, might justifiably worry a parent. The dramatic tone that makes her story appealing to this age group could conceivably make Hannah’s frame of mind a little too appealing.

On the other hand, Asher works hard to provide some balance. As Clay listens to the tapes, we see him engage in a mental dialogue with Hannah’s voice. Silently, he reminds her that he was never cruel to her, that he would have helped her if she had let him, and that the decision to end it all was ultimately her own decision, not one she was forced to make.

And this is all true. Clay is a decent young man, someone Hannah liked and wished she could have opened up to. Clay’s friend Tony, who turns out to have a surprising connection with the tapes, is also kind and decent. The trouble wasn’t that Hannah didn’t know any good people. It was that her trust had been betrayed so many times that, ultimately, she couldn’t bring herself to trust again.

As previously mentioned, “Thirteen Reasons Why” contains discussions (and some mild descriptions) of sex and underage drinking, as well as profanity. There’s little reference to any sort of belief system that might have encouraged and sustained Hannah. An unintended result of this, I believe, is that the story places a lot of responsibility on its young readers. It sounds at times as if only the kindness of another person could have pulled Hannah back from the brink; the book doesn’t suggest that she herself might have found tools, such as faith, to face her challenges.

The message that teens need to learn to treat each other with more respect and kindness is an important one. (In fact, the book ends on a hopeful note when Clay, inspired by Hannah’s story, reaches out to another lonely girl.) But letting a teen think that he or she might be the one person standing between a peer and suicide . . . for some teens, that might be too heavy a burden to bear.

Still, the issues covered in this book are very real issues for a lot of kids, who don’t always know how to handle them. Not even adults do, sometimes. One scene that rang depressingly true was the scene in which Hannah’s teacher tried to counsel her.

Feeling depressed and disgusted with herself, Hannah had given in to a sexual encounter with a boy she despised, which left her feeling even worse. But her teacher told her there were only three things she could do: file charges (which she knew would be wrong, since she had consented), or confront the boy, or “move beyond this.” Hannah recognized that none of these “solutions” would help her, but she didn’t know what else to do. In a society where we refuse to talk about the moral implications of premarital sex, or the value of repentance, I found this scene all too believable.

Parents should give some serious thought to whether their kids can handle this book, and if they do decide to let their teens read it, I would strongly advise that they read it together. It could lead to productive family discussions about problems that teens face (Asher says in a Q&A, in the most recent edition, that many teens say the book has helped them deal with such problems), but only if parents are willing to walk through it with them.

For Further Information:

“Thirteen Reasons Why” inspired the “Thirteen Reasons Why Project,” where teens are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings about the book.

Also, the book is currently being developed into a movie, starring Selena Gomez.

Image copyright Razorbill. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog.

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