Friday, August 5, 2011

That's What She Read: 13 Reasons Why

So, I just spent my Friday night finishing up Jay Asher’s wildly popular young adult book, Thirteen Reasons Why. In hindsight, as this book is about suicide, and staying at home by yourself on a Friday night is already a shaky topic, this may not have been a great idea, but alas, I press on.

For the last two years, I’ve seen this book everywhere. When I was teaching sixth grade, at least two or three of the kids read it, and I know at least one or two read it last year when I moved to teaching seventh grade. At any rate, I knew it was popular, and now I know why.

Thirteen Reasons Why tells the story of Clay, who receives a mysterious box of cassette tapes in the mail. When he begins to listen to them, he hears the voice of Hannah, a girl at his high school who, two weeks before, committed suicide. It is revealed that Hannah has made the tapes to give the reason for her suicide, so each person who played a role in her decision is able hear exactly why they affected her.

I finished the book ten minutes ago, so I’m not sure if I can adequately say why I'm uncomfortable, but I think that I can’t decide if it sends the correct message about suicide. At the end of the book, the reader can see exactly why Hannah chooses to end her life, but I am not sure if she is celebrated for doing so, if she is pitied, or what. The problem with this sort of vague storytelling, is that the actions that Hannah chooses for expressing herself post-suicide, could possibly seem romantic to the emotionally fragile people it is geared towards.

Who hasn’t wanted to tell everyone who has hurt them in some way exactly how they feel about it, with no consequences? I’m not sure there is anyone alive who hasn’t thought about it. In her death, Hannah gets to live out something that I know I have fantasized about (not the suicide, but the tape making). And here is where we get into trouble. I know that I was not the only high schooler that struggled with depression. In fact, I can see my high school self doing something totally similar in reaction to a few incidents that happened toward the end – something that reading this book would have only strengthened. So, in the end, would the book, intended to help, have hurt me, had I read it in that frame of mind? I don’t know.

On the flip side, this book does do something positive, and that is that it shows people exactly how their actions, even the smallest or seemingly innocent, can have a profound effect on others, and I know that I thought of a few things that I have done out of not wanting to be inconvenienced that could have been hurtful to someone else. But, does this concept outweigh the potential romanticizing of suicide?

Actually, I’m not sure the suicide is romanticized. Clay and the other characters mentioned appear to be deeply affected by what goes on. Their grief is profound and palpable. But, are young people able to recognize the difference?

In any case, I am not sure how I feel recommending this book to my students. I know they would like it, and race through it, but would it help?