When Clay Jensen- a quiet, shy high school student- returns home from school one day to find a package from an anonymous person sitting on his doorstep, he opens it to discover a cassette tape recorded by a girl at his high school who had committed suicide and learns thirteen reasons for why she killed herself- and he is one of those reasons.
Jay Asher released his debut novel in 2007, which has since been banned from schools for being “unsuitable for the targeted age group”; and containing offensive language and sexually explicit text; and “references to suicide, drugs, alcohol, and smoking.”
Of course it “references” suicide- that’s what the whole book is about.
Good writing not only entertains while it tells its story, but it touches the reader as they experience the journey along with the characters and empathize with the situations. Outside of the pages, readers can also reflect on those circumstances and identify a part of themselves and shared experiences. The best way to describe that powerful effect of writing on the psyche is hauntingly memorable.
That is exactly what readers experience with Thirteen Reasons Why.
Have you ever exaggerated the truth in order to impress someone without thinking about how that lie could hurt someone else?
Are you the kind of person who decides to look the other way when someone was in need because you were too scared or nervous to speak up yourself?
Have you ever invaded someone’s privacy or violated their body without their permission?
Well these are just some of the experiences that lead to Hannah Baker’s suicide, and she conscientiously takes you along as she counts off each reason, leading up to her final act and lesson to all.
The tapes were mailed to one classmate with instructions to pass them from one student to the next, like a chain letter, starting from the one involved in the first story to the last. On the tapes, Hannah explains to these thirteen people how they played a role in her death and gives a second set of tapes to one of their classmates, the identity of whom Clay later discovers, with the warning that if the thirteen do not pass them on, the second set will be leaked to the entire student body.
The mere act of suicide is daunting enough, but for someone to learn that they played a role in leading to someone’s death is spine-chilling.
Asher’s novel makes readers feel nakedly uncomfortable, and this has caused parents nationwide to call for the book to be banned because their children could discover that raw emotion and truth that cuts to the reader’s heart and feel and experience the same vulnerability.
Yes, ignorance, rainbows, and candy canes are much better than actually discovering our vulnerabilities or discussing how to treat each other with respect.
In spite of these censorship efforts, many readers, young and old alike, credit the novel with changing- and even saving- their lives.
As with so many teen-centered books in the censors’ crosshairs, the reality is that many students everywhere and every day feel just like Hannah- the unheard, the unappreciated, and those unable to cope with the hardships, so they decide to act on those feelings of despair. Many of them, thankfully, reach out to friends, family, and other adults to talk about these feelings and get the help and support they need.
Most of us may have had glances at depression or pain, but we aren’t overwhelmed with the emotion like Hannah.
The majority of students are the ones who look the other way, the ones who laugh at someone else’s expense because it’s “me or them” in the popularity game of high school social life, and feel that they can take advantage of someone’s body, emotion, or mentality because it’s okay as long as they feel as if no one “really” gets hurt.
That’s exactly why Thirteen Reasons should remain in schools and on bookshelves everywhere, to be read by- and for- those individuals; for people to realize that every action- or inaction- has consequences.
If we do not stand against acts that hurt others, we are not an “innocent bystander” but an accomplice to those causing the pain.
The author, himself, summed up the importance and impact of this novel in an interview when he commented that, “Writing this book made me realize how fascinated I am by the way people interact… and the obstacles that keep us from understanding each other better.”
He shared a story with Entertainment Weekly, in 2011, on the eve of the release of the book in paperback format that puts into perspective the impact of good writing:
It was a moment he had dreaded since the book was published. It was his first book signing, and one woman had been patiently waiting for the crowd to thin. Finally walking up to the table, she told him that her 14-year-old son had taken his own life a few years earlier, and she’d read the book. “My heart just stopped,” recalls Asher. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go. Here’s where somebody’s going to totally chew me out.’”
“She started crying,” he said of the grieving mom. “She said that for the first time she felt she could let go of some of the guilt.”
Perhaps the public discourse on this issue will increase when the film adaption hits the screen. Universal Studios purchased film rights to the novel in 2011, with Selena Gomez cast to play the lead role of Hannah Baker.
Even the rocky journey of the novel’s existence is a lesson in perseverance.
Asher took three years to write the book; but towards the end he lost confidence, to the point that one night he took his wife out for an expensive dinner that they couldn’t really afford, and announced that he was scrapping the book, and giving up writing. He was terrified of this deeply personal novel getting rejected by publishers. “My wife started crying, because ever since she knew me, that was my dream, to be a published author. When your wife cries, you’ll do anything to get her to stop crying, so I said, ‘Okay. I’ll finish this one book.’”
And it’s a good thing he did. It hit the New York Times best-seller list six months after its release and stayed there for sixty-five weeks. Sales never faltered, which is why it took four years for it to be published in paperback.
Oh, as he feared, the manuscript did, in fact, get rejected. Twelve times.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/
Sources: Metro International, Examiner, Entertainment Weekly
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions