I’ve resisted reading Thirteen Reasons Why for a long time. The book follows high school student Clay Jensen through a night where he must listen to thirteen cassette tapes recorded by his crush Hannah Baker who recently committed suicide. On the tapes she lists thirteen reasons and thirteen people who helped her decide to kill herself. If Clay listens he will find out how he made this list. If he doesn’t there is the threat that the tapes will be released to the public.
When I’ve looked at the book before, I thought things like “Why would I want to read something so dark. Life is hard enough without reading books like that” or “Why do teenage books have to be so depressing now.” But as a huge bestseller and winner of many literary awards – I thought it would be good to read it as someone who is interested in writing young adult books. Well let me tell you, all of my assumptions about this book were wrong. It blew me away as both a reader and an aspiring writer. I tried to distill what was so great about the book and came up with three words: tension, relatable, and voice.
Tension: Why does she kill herself? What does Clay have to do with it? I had all kinds of sinister ideas, and I don’t want to give any of the book away but all of my ideas were wrong. It kept me guessing full of interesting connections, twists and turns designed to keep the reader turning pages. There is also a past in Hannah’s life that is alluded to but never explained.
Relatable: This book does not paint a happy portrait of high school. Peer pressure, parental pressure, gossip, and self-centered nature of teens all felt very relatable. The story is not overwrought the way I feared. Hannah and Clay are well imagined but reasonable characters. Both are outsiders kept in their roles through reputations that aren’t founded in truth.
Voice: Balances the two voices – Hannah’s through the tapes and Clay’s as he reacts to what he hears. While both were excellent, Clay’s seemed particularly nuanced as he balances feeling defensive and guilty. As I said before, Hannah seems reasonable which is no small feat considering she has done two things that by definition are unreasonable: ending her life and making these revenge tapes to explain the decision.
I really recommend this book to any readers of contemporary young adult fiction. It is not a fun or light read, but it is compelling. It confronts really difficult themes head on and weaves in lessons of mutual responsibility. It made me think about my actions, and how unknowingly they could affect others in a negative way.