This book has been on my to-read list for years, and I’m not quite sure why I never got around to it before now. Luckily, with a new job as an eighth grade reading teacher, I feel a much greater need to get through the Young Adult and Teen books that I’ve been meaning to read. This was one of the first I checked off my list.
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, is a story about a teenage girl named Hannah who commits suicide. Rather than leave a suicide note, Hannah leaves cassette tapes with recordings of herself speaking. On the cassette tapes are thirteen stories – thirteen reasons why she felt the only choice left to her was suicide. Each story centers around a separate person who she has had interactions with, mainly in school. Hannah has arranged to have the cassette tapes mailed to the first person mentioned on the tapes, with instructions for that person to mail them to the second person and so on, until the tapes reach the final person who was “responsible” for Hannah’s death.
What becomes apparent as the stories unfold is how one small action or choice can have such an influence on a person’s life long after that original action. One joke or rumor can lead to a misguided idea and impression of a person, and this impression often dictates how that person is treated by others. Unfortunately, even the truth from the affected person can be overlooked in favor of stories that match more closely to the pre-made judgements.
Hannah’s stories begin with a boy who Hannah kissed (and only kissed) – her first kiss. The story her classmates hear instead, is that there was more than kissing. Although Hannah insists on an innocent kiss being all there was, her reputation is set. It is from this one simple exaggeration that everything else spirals and snowballs.
Although the plot focuses on Hannah’s stories from her cassettes, there are actually two narrators – Hannah and one of the people who receives the tapes, a boy named Clay. While two narrators can sometimes become confusing, I thought it worked well for this book, because we saw Clay’s immediate reaction to Hannah’s stories and her remarks. For me, it made the book even more powerful.
I feel like this story does a very good job of showing us that the way we treat people does make a difference; it does have an effect on them. We may think we are only teasing, or that we are harmlessly passing on a story, but that story or that teasing remark may be one of countless others that a person is dealing with. What stuck with me after I finished, was the fact that almost every person Hannah mentioned on her cassettes treated her in a way that matched their expectations. Hardly anyone took the time to get to know Hannah, and to form their own opinions of her. How many of us do this in our own lives?
Each time I finish a young adult/teen book, I consider if it’s a book that I’d like to include in my classroom library or that I can recommend to my students. This is certainly a book that I think my (students’) age group should read – my only hesitation is that there is some more “adult” matter. I’d need to make sure I recommend it to a student who can handle it, and who can focus on the story as a whole, taking the proper message from it.