Since its publication in 2006, 13 Reasons Why has become the go-to novel on the subject of teen suicide, but it’s more sensational than useful.
Reading Level: Young Adult, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 15-up
Suppose, when you get home from school one day, there’s a package waiting on your doorstep, addressed to you. Inside are seven cassette tapes, a list of names and addresses, a map, and “instructions” from a girl at your school who is now dead. On each side of the tapes, she recorded one “reason why.” Thirteen people are to hear all the tapes in turn, then mail the entire package to the next person on the list. You are #9. You are one reason why Hannah Baker killed herself.
It’s an irresistible premise, and the novel was an instant bestseller when it appeared almost ten years ago. Our protagonist Clay Jensen (#9) spends a night tracing Hannah’s footsteps all over town, listening to Hannah’s cassettes on an old Walkman as she recounts the events of her miserable school year. The tipping point was witnessing a despicable act at a party that she was too afraid to do anything about. By the end the average reader is supposed to be thinking, No wonder she took those pills. And maybe even, We’re all guilty.
Two valuable points: 1) We should be more aware of the impact of our actions on others; 2) We’re not as nice as we may think. Still, this story doesn’t work (for me) as expected. One serious drawback is that Hannah becomes less sympathetic as the story goes on. What she experiences, especially at the beginning, is unfortunate but it’s pretty normal (which is also unfortunate). Her voice doesn’t ring true; it’s the wounded, snarky, superior tone of Melanie in Lauri Halse Anderson’s Speak. She despises her fellow students. Even the nice ones are clueless, and thereby deserving of contempt. Her suicide is cold and deliberate—I can’t imagine someone taking this much effort to set up her own demise–making it an act of revenge rather than desperation. She kneecaps thirteen people, but not the one most guilty. And she never turns to her parents, whose worst crime is preoccupation. Adults (except for one teacher, another “reason why”) are superfluous in this world. I can see teens devouring this book out of morbid curiosity, but for understanding and dealing with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal peers, it can’t be much help.
Cautions: Language (occasional vulgarity), Sexuality, Dark/depressing
Overall Rating: 3 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 2.5
- Artistic Value: 3.5
Categories: Realistic Fiction, Young Adults, Life Issues
NOTE: The Netflex series based on 13 Reasons Why was a huge hit with millions of watchers. While it follows the basic outline of the novel, the action is spread out over weeks rather than days, the language is much worse, and three characters express varying degrees of same-sex attraction (which none did in the book).