Friday, April 5, 2013

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Title:  Thirteen Reasons Why
Author:  Jay Asher
Publisher:  Razorbill
Year:  2007
Pages:  304
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Depression, Suicide, Living with Consequences, Interconnectedness
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers thirteen 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.

I originally found this book on a "Best YA Books" list, from Amazon or Scholastic or something, and thought it sounded like an interesting narrative structure.  Which it is, without a doubt.  But what really convinced me to pick it up was the reaction of some of the teenagers in my life to the book.  Without exception, the teens I know who've read it were profoundly moved and affected by it in some way.  And they seemed to fall into two distinct groups-those who identified more with Hannah, the girl who kills herself, or Clay, the narrator and our guide through the tapes.

For obvious reasons I am slightly more concerned by the youth who identify more closely with Hannah, but I also get it.  Hannah was a regular girl-not someone who was seen by others as odd, disturbed, eccentric, quirky, etc...She was just a girl, trying to fit in, with a "reputation" for promiscuity that was completely fabricated by some other kid who was desperately trying to do the same.  Hannah felt that her true self was slowly fading away, being replaced by this persona that was created for her, and which various people she came into contact with either contributed to or failed to confront.  Add to that sexual assault, isolation, and guilt, and you have a pretty powerful cocktail of teenage despair.  What the teens I know identified with was not so much her desire to end her life, but an understanding of how much of our self-image is wrapped up in how other people see us, and how loneliness and the feeling that you don't belong anywhere can damage a person's psyche.

The person I felt myself most drawn to, as did some of the youth I have discussed this book with, was Clay. Because I think that more of us find ourselves in Clay's position than in Hannah's (though far too many teens feel exactly as Hannah did).  Because Clay, even though he was on the list, was a good guy, who failed to do the right thing.  Of course, he didn't really know at the time what the right thing was-he is, after all, a teenager himself.  But of all of the people Hannah traces her suicide to, he is the most innocent, both to the reader and to Hannah herself.  In a way I felt like this was a cop out by Asher, to make the one person who is innocent of any real part in the downward spiral of Hannah's life the sympathetic narrator, but now I'm rethinking.  Because I think that perhaps the most powerful statement the book makes is that what we say and do matters, and that the small cruelties or deceits that we perform have consequences we can't always imagine.  Because despite the fact that Clay's part in Hannah's decision was as a result of an inaction, instead of an action, he still feels a strong sense of guilt and responsibility.  Too many of us do nothing.  We content ourselves with being bystanders, feeling better about ourselves because we are not perpetrators.  But it is our very passivity that allows rumors to go unchecked, unkind acts to go unchallenged, despairing people to remain isolated-doing nothing can sometimes be as bad as doing the wrong thing.

I think that this book would engender good discussion if used in a whole class or small group setting.  Because of the nature of the rumors about Hannah, and the not-at-all-graphic but still horrifying rape scene, I probably wouldn't use this book in the classroom below eighth grade.  But a mature 6th or 7th grader might be able to handle it, especially if they are already having to confront the things that Hannah faces in the book.

Teacher Resources:
Penguin Teachers' Guide
Bookrags Lesson Plans
TeacherVision Lesson Plans

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