Plot Summary: Hannah Baker recently committed suicide. A few days later, Clay Jensen receives a package with no return address for him. Inside are thirteen tapes of Hannah's now disembodied voice describing why she ended her life. The cassettes are to be sent to a handful of people, all of whom played a part in her tragedy. One of the reasons is a hurtful list that was distributed to the student body rating various body parts of women. She was voted "best ass in the Freshman class" much to her dismay. This and a few other rumors about her sexual encounters led to her being treated poorly and unfairly by her male peers. In one of the tapes, Hannah describes that Clay was her savior and potential lover, but his advances and emotions were too little, too late. Clay argues that by that time, she had already made up her mind.
Critical Analysis: I applaud Jay Asher for pulling no punches. In a recent review of Crank, I criticized Hopkins for tacking on a relatively happy ending that completely ignored the protagonist’s drug problem. Thirteen Reasons Why is uncomfortable and compelling to read. Hannah Baker does have many unpleasant experiences that are quite relatable to a high school experience. Surprisingly, Baker’s reasons for suicide are relatively understandable. Asher walks a fine line of showing her mental instability but showing that suicide is something that can cross anyone’s mind.
When starting the book, I was worried that Hannah’s reasons would all be fickle and narcissistic, but Asher actually confronts this possibility. At one point in the book, a class discusses an anonymous suicide note and everyone criticizes the writer for not being forthright about it and how selfish and dumb it was. Clearly, Asher’s message is that teenage suicide certainly can be selfish and narcissistic, but peers and teachers alike cannot treat it that way.
Despite its compelling nature, the structure and narrative of the story loses points for me. Asher has the reader following Clay while he listens to Hannah’s tapes and reacts. This is a fine structure, but it was very confusing to read. Clay’s thoughts are unitalicized while Hannah’s are italicized. They switch back and forth often and both characters are sometimes in the same location, so keeping track is sometimes overly difficult. I read that the audiobook utilizes two different voice actors for each narrative, so perhaps this would be the best format with which to enjoy Asher’s debut novel.
Reader’s Annotation: Hannah Baker recently committed suicide. Now 13 tapes are being distributed to a select few chronicling the reasons why.
Author Information: Jay Asher lived in most of California for his life. During a short stint in Wyoming, he came up with the idea for Thirteen Reasons Why while on an audio tour at a museum. He thought the idea of a disembodied voice describing your surroundings was compelling.
Genre: realistic fiction, drama, young adult
Curriculum Ties: this could be a great tool to use when discussing suicide in a health class
Booktalking Ideas: What are the steps that a student can take when a fellow peer is showing warning signs of suicide?
Why did Asher decide to use cassette tapes instead of CDs or even mp3s?
Reading Level/Interest Age: 15-18
Why I included this title: I needed more realistic fiction selections since I’m heavily a fantasy/science fiction reader. I thought the premise of this book was immediately interesting, much like a Chuck Palahniuk book. I barely tolerate young adult books that treat young adults as if they were children who can’t think for themselves and I thought this title exemplifies what an author can do to avoid that.