Thirteen Reasons Why was recommended to me by a friend who was surprised, given my extensive reading in the YA genre, that I hadn’t heard of it. Jay Asher’s uniquely formatted novel about the reasons behind a teen suicide turns into a lesson about the interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings. The novel demonstrates that knowing the signs of someone at risk and recognizing them for what they are, are two different things; it shows that everyone is responsible to everyone else in small ways that can have large repercussions.
After school one day, Clay Jensen receives a shoebox of cassette tapes. Curious about the numbered tapes, Clay starts listening to the first tape and hears a voice he never thought he’d hear again: Hannah Baker. Weeks before, Hannah, the girl he’d had a longstanding crush on, had killed herself. And now she’s going to explain to why. Passed along from one person to the next in Hannah’s list, the tapes allow Hannah to take her listeners back to the moments where their lives collided with hers and how their actions contributed to her snowballing depression and feelings of isolation. And Clay must listen in agony to figure out where and how he fits into things.
The double narrative of Thirteen Reasons Why is unlike other shared narrative. Inspired by the self-guided audio tours offered by most museums, Hannah’s narration and Clay’s reactions are intercut on an almost line-by-line basis throughout the novel (as opposed to Hannah narrating for a chapter and then a chapter of Clay’s response). The immediacy of Clay’s responses alongside the pictorial presentation of him stopping, starting, and pausing the tapes both help keep the reader grounded and looking through eyes of Clay. It was a narrative approach I found intriguing and I was pleased with how it worked throughout the novel (sometimes those kinds of gimmicks can wear on the reader but it didn’t for me in this case).
What was surprising about Hannah’s tapes was that they don’t spread the blame so much as show a collective responsibility that people either refuse to take or pretend not to see. It helps to open Clay’s eyes to the way he’s interacted with others in his past and the ways that rumors color one’s perception of others. It’s this aspect of the novel that makes me think it would be a fantastic book for required reading in middle school. That’s right; not high school, middle school. By the time kids read this in high school, I feel like it would be too late for the ideas and concepts to stick in a productive way. In my experience, most of the nastiness that emerged in students’ interactions with one another began in sixth or seventh grade, not freshman or sophomore year of high school. I could see some parents getting upset due to some of the book’s sexual content or the simple fact that it is about a suicide, but I honestly don’t think it’s as far away (as far as traumatizing young readers) as books like Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Red Fern Grows or The Outsiders.
Realizing the impact that even our casual treatment of others can have on their lives is almost as enlightening as being forced to confront how often we fail to acknowledge warning signs simply because we don’t want to see them for what they are and take it upon ourselves to do something about it. Thirteen Reasons Why shoves both front and center for the reader’s consideration and reflection.