(…third in a series on banned books)
Because September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, it’s fitting that the Number Three book on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books for 2012 deals with that topic.
The book is “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. Published in 2007, the young adult novel makes its first appearance on the challenged list this year. After reading it, it’s easy for me to see why.
The book tells the story of high school junior Clay Jensen, a “good kid” who returns home from school one afternoon to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside the box are seven cassette tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah Baker, who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On the tapes, 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 and twelve others made the list.
Through Clay and Hannah’s dual narrative, easily distinguishable because Hannah’s recorded words are printed in italics, we learn what led Hannah to her final desperate act.
It’s an inventive way to tell a story and Asher pulls it off well. Technically, anyway. “Thirteen Reasons Why” is unquestionably a page-turner. The main characters and the places they managed to hurt Hannah, either willfully or unintentionally, are artfully woven together in a way that can definitely be described as suspenseful.
But despite Asher’s excellent plotting and writing, the novel falls flat for one big reason. Hannah is an unsympathetic character. She’s whiney. Self -absorbed. Vindictive. Yeah, some bad stuff happens to her. But it’s no worse than what happens to a lot of high school students. Asher doesn’t make Hannah’s problems seem all that monumental. Certainly not worthy of making her take her own life.
Jay Asher’s motives for writing “Thirteen Reasons Why” were noble. The story was inspired, in part, by a close relative who attempted suicide when she was the same age as Hannah. Fortunately, she failed. “It’s important to be aware of how we treat others,” Asher said when asked about the book’s message. “Everything matters. We never know if we might be adding to someone’s pain.”
That is, no doubt, many readers’ take-away. But too many others might interpret the book’s message another way: Suicide is the perfect way to get back at those who’ve hurt you.
For that reason, and also because it’s filled with teens who spend their free time at parties where alcohol and sex are the primary entertainment and whose parents don’t care, “Thirteen Reasons Why” continues to be controversial. It’s definitely not a book appropriate for middle schoolers. But in the hands of skillful parents, teachers and youth leaders, it could be a wonderful springboard for discussions with older teens about one of the most serious topics confronting them.
September just might be the perfect month to get those discussions started.
(September 22, 2013)