April 17, 2014 in Book Reviews
From a reading standpoint, I love Young Adult novels. The teenage years are ripe with angst, raging hormones, rash decisions, and under age drinking, which makes for great conflict and drama. It is an interesting time of simplicity (they have no jobs or children or income taxes to be responsible for) and complexity (it really is daunting trying to figure out if the senior boy who pays no attention to you likes you or not).
From a writing standpoint, I love reading novels with different formats. Mark Haddon’s The Red House is written from eight different viewpoints. The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot is told entirely through emails, and Isaac Asimov wrote a novel (Murder at the ABA) where the narrator and another character get into arguments about the accuracy of the narrator’s storytelling in hilarious footnotes.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is a YA novel told in a unique format, and I ate it up.
Clay Jensen has just received a mysterious package in the mail. Inside he finds a series of seven numbered cassette tapes (love the vintage throwback!) and a letter instructing him to listen to all of the tapes or suffer the consequences, for there is a second set of tapes waiting to be released to the public if he does not comply. Each side of each tape (except the seventh, which is only one side) is dedicated to revealing the wrongs committed by 13 different people, including a teacher, toward fellow student Hannah Baker. These are no ordinary wrongs: these are the 13 reasons that ultimately led Hannah to commit suicide.
The novel is written from the first person point of view of Clay Jensen and through Hannah Baker’s voice on the tapes, and these voices flip-flop paragraph by paragraph. Having Hannah’s voice in italics helps keep who is doing the talking clear, which is important because the voices are constantly alternating.
Just as in high school, there are characters who are kind and those who will use anyone to get what they want. There are some who wish they could have moved past their own insecurities to reach out to another and some who care so little about other people that they end up doing some rather nasty things. There are cliques and ostracizations, harried teachers that miss important opportunities to intervene, and even Hannah, bogged down in an inability to change her reputation and a losing battle to belong, made some poor choices before she died.
I love that Hannah was not perfect. Just like everyone else, she struggled to discover who she was and where she fit in, and the decisions she made were questionable at times. She was a normal, flawed teenage girl, except now she’s dead.
There are great lessons to be found here. The damage that can be inflicted in seemingly “harmless” high school antics is demonstrated, like “The List” where the fact that Hannah earns “Best Ass” has consequences. (Although it’s hard to tell which is worse: being on “The List” or not being on it.) The difficulty of not belonging or having a friend you can count on is poignantly told, and the signs of her impending suicide could be helpful to all of us in spotting someone who might be in trouble.
I loved every sentence of this novel. I hope a lot of high schoolers read it, both to see how their behavior has consequences they may not even realize, and to learn what signs should trigger a warning to get help for a friend.