My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher is a controversial book because of its story covering the thirteen significant events which lead to Hannah Baker taking her own life. When the young adult novel begins, Hannah has already committed suicide (so the outcome is clear and permanent) and the protagonist, Clay Jensen, must listen to cassette tapes that Hannah (his love interest) made before she killed herself, and on these tapes Hannah explains her reasoning for why she decided to end her life far too soon.
Before we get into what makes this young adult book an international bestseller, we (as educated readers) must first recognize the importance of all human life, and how fragile human life and how powerful words can be for men and women in varied circumstances around the world. Many of the reasons Hannah list as part of her reasoning to kill herself include bullying from her peers in high school, a fragile time when young adults are trying to come to terms with identity, sexual orientation, and their personal destiny.
Some young adults never grow out of this period of their lives and struggle with their identity, sexual orientation, and personal destiny even into late adulthood (which is truly sad).
Even in the news there are countless cases of bullying, face-to-face and on social media. Keaton Jones was attacked by bullies who “made fun of the way he looks, poured milk on him, put ham down his clothes” and Keaton went on to say that “he had no friends” (read more at USA Today).
This is no laughing matter. And one must ask: where are those students who will stand up for the meek and defend those in need? A moral crisis (as one can see with the #MeToo campaign) has long overtaken America and its citizens, of all ages and of all races and of varied levels of wealth.
August Ames, a porn star whose real name is Mercedes Grabowski, took her own life after she was attacked on Twitter (read more at Rolling Stone).
At one point, August accumulated fame, fortune, and over 600,000 Twitter followers before the fan-culture turned on her in 21st century mob fashion known as “cyberbullying.” (We should also be reminded that no matter who a person is or what a person does for her career, love and respect need to be priority number one. It isn’t what a person does but how a person will be remembered that matters.) August was a human being who simply needed love and not hate at a time in her life when she lost all hope for seeing one more day.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher handles the very issue of memory and how Hannah Baker wishes to be remembered, and she wants everyone to know the truth—no matter how bad it hurts for others who must listen to the tapes and to Hannah’s final goodbye:
“So thank you, Justin. Sincerely. My very first kiss was wonderful. And for the month or so that we lasted, and everywhere that we went, the kisses were wonderful. You were wonderful.
“But then you started bragging.
“A week went by and I heard nothing. But eventually, as they always will, the rumors reached me. And everyone knows you can’t disprove a rumor.
“A rumor based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special. A rumor based on a kiss started a reputation that other people believed in and reacted to. And, sometimes, a rumor based on a kiss has a snowball effect.
“A rumor, based on a kiss, is just the beginning” (pgs 30-31).
Rumors spread about Hannah throughout the book and she, on the tapes, attempts to clarify the truth from the untruth—and it is heartbreaking (you can even watch the plot unfold on the hit Netflix show with the same name as the book: “13 Reasons Why”).
Hannah also gives some advice along the way to anyone (especially in Hollywood) who wasn’t raised with common sense enough to know better:
“Here’s a tip. If you touch a girl, even as a joke, and she pushes you off, leave…her…alone. Don’t touch her. Anywhere! Your touch does nothing but sicken her” (p 52).
Hannah, whose voice comes out of the past and breaks the barrier of present day, lays her heart and soul on the tapes for Clay to listen to and follow a map that marks each of the events that changed Hannah’s life, among so many other lives. Each tape is dedicated to a different person and it is up to each person alone to listen to Hannah on all the tapes (thereby the involved individuals knowing exactly what the others have done to Hannah) or the tapes will be made public by a mysterious person who follows Clay throughout the book.
The thing about rumors is that rumors and gossip have power because they can neither be proved or disproved and often such rumors, for that very reason, remain hidden in the casual face-to-face, behind-the-back kind of talk no one likes to admit to at the end of the day—except, that is, for Hannah:
“She closed her eyes and said my name in almost a whisper. ‘Hannah.’
“Do you remember that, Jessica? Because I do.
“When someone says your name like that, when they won’t even look you in the eyes, there is nothing more you can do or say. Their mind is made up.
“‘Hannah,’ you said. ‘I know the rumors.’
“‘You can’t know the rumors,’ I said. And maybe I was being a little sensitive, but I had hoped—silly me—that there would be no more rumors when my family moved here. That I had left the rumors and gossip behind me… for good. ‘You can hear rumors,’ I said, ‘but you can’t know them’” (pgs 65-66).
Thirteen Reasons Why and its final plot (a young girl taking her own life) is similar to Shakespeare’s play Romeo & Juliet, and for that reason alone is why this book should be fine for young adults and should not be censored or banned from bookstores or libraries. After all, Romeo and Juliet, these infamous star-crossed lovers who killed themselves, have been around for centuries with young adults and adults pining away for lost loves, for second chances, and for things to be better than they were before.
Thirteen Reasons Why, however, would be ideal for classroom and/or group discussions where young adults can openly discuss, consider, argue, criticize, reflect, judge, and weigh the issues presented in this wonderful book by Jay Asher. After all, the book has been around since 2007 and will be around for many, many years to come.
One final note, though: no matter what, no matter how dark and depressing and discouraging life appears to be, how small and how final the events make you feel, how bleak and how tragic you believe the world to be, always remember this:
You never know what beautiful things may come in the next day when the new sun rises.
Please, keep reading and keep smiling.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers