Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, 2007, Book Review

thirteen reasonsI read this book last year, just before hearing Jay speak at a writer’s conference. I’ll admit, Mr. Asher has talent, his book is a page turner. It’s unique, shocking and well-put-together, but I have some serious issues with passing it along.

Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of a high school girl who commits suicide. But before she does the deed, she makes a series of tapes centered around thirteen individuals who pushed her into taking her life. Then she mails them to the first of the thirteen with the rules–you must listen, and you must pass them on. We come late to the list, with Clay Jensen, the one person whose name appears not because of anything bad he has done. Rather, he receives the tapes more as an explanation, an apology, and therein lies a secondary tragedy. Clay and Hannah had recently found a mutual attraction for each other, but it was too late. Hannah had already given up. And Clay is left listening to her story, wondering what if?

Knowing the prevalence of teen suicide, this story attracted and concerned me. Never having dealt personally with the dark emotions Hannah describes, I had a hard time understanding them. I was, and I remain, skeptical of much of what she says. Some of her misery even seems self-inflicted. I respond thinking she should just suck it up and adjust, deal with this stuff head on. But that’s my way, and I realize it’s not everyone’s way. For Hannah and others like her, her situation was overwhelming. And that makes this a very thought-provoking and disturbing read, and on those grounds, I could recommend it.

But I don’t think I will. Because it’s also full of profanity, partying and teen sex–and we’re not just talking nuance here. I know, I know, it’s how things are in today’s high schools. But that doesn’t make such behavior appropriate or safe, so I won’t put my name on this and tell everyone it’s a great read. I chose to tackle it because it’s still ranking high on the best-sellers list, and some folks who think like I do might appreciate the heads up. Perhaps there are others who will overlook the junk and benefit from the theme. Either way, it’s definitely YA and not intended for young readers.

4 thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, 2007, Book Review

  1. Interesting post. Having worked at a youth treatment center in the past, I’m familiar with this book (at least from them telling me about it. Haven’t actually read it). I’ve also seen it in my mainstream high school students’ hands, as well. It does raise interesting questions. Beyond the obvious of “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” there’s the question of whether or not an already troubled teenager should be reading a book about suicide.

    I guess my question for you (and something we talked about considerably with at the treatment center) is whether or not you believe this book glorifies those things. I’m not saying that changes whether or not the material should be in a book for adolescents, but I’m just curious.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  2. I wouldn’t say it glorifies suicide, as in making it look wonderful. The book does have an overarching sense of tragedy and waste and regret, which I suppose some would say validates the content. But it does use suicide for shock effect, which I hope wouldn’t be emulated by troubled kids seeking attention. And the girl who kills herself treats it very glibly. The rumors that push her to it seem ridiculously minor to my way of thinking – not that suicide is ever warranted. (This also makes the writing feel a bit contrived, but that’s a different subject altogether.) The other content issues are more contextual and don’t tie as directly into the suicide. They are treated as neither good nor bad; they aren’t really the topic. They’re just included as a normal part of teen culture.

  3. Hmm. If they don’t really tie into the topic, then I agree that they don’t necessarily (and in my opinion, I emphasize “necessarily”) need to be included in the book. Although I can see that if you are wanting to reach a teenage audience that might be prone to suicidal thoughts (not to be super stereotypical here), but you probably want to be as realistic about what their life is actually like. It’s not as often your straight “A,” drinking-punch-at-the-honor-society-social kids who kills themselves.

    But like you said, that doesn’t necessarily make this appropriate mainstream YA reading material. As a treatment book? Maybe, but only if that “overarching sense of tragedy and waste and regret” is strong enough.

    Good discussion. You have a very good critical eye.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  4. Yeah, content can be a tough call. I wouldn’t recommend a book like this to my own kids as pleasure reading, but if the topic hits close to home, it might warrant reading to start discussion.

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