A few weeks back you may recall I posted about Banned Books Week, and how I was inspired to read some of the books on the list simply because there were people arguing that they should be banned – controversy will do that for me. Well I I recently started (and quickly read through to the end) one of the books on the list: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Check out the book’s official site here.).
The book was “challenged” (ie. a euphemism for being nominated to be banned) because it deals with teenage suicide. Heaven knows, we wouldn’t want to actually talk about such a thing! Because ignoring something guarantees it will never happen… right?
Wrong (obviously — I am taking the liberty of assuming that all of you reading this agree with me on this point, or I imagine I would have gotten some nasty notes by now!).
Basically the premise of the novel (and don’t worry, no spoilers here), is that a boy receives a set of cassette tapes made by a girl who recently committed suicide, and he spends the night listening to her recount the last months, weeks, days of her life and ultimately the thirteen reason she chose to end it.
I understand, in principle, why some may want this book banned. It doesn’t have a happy ending where the girl is saved from death and everyone lives happily ever after. But it has something so much better than that – truth.
Yes, the truth is that sometimes things happen that we can never undo. Sometimes we make decisions that make sense in one moment but we live to regret in the next. Sometimes we make mistakes and we fail. Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do bad things. Sometimes good people do things they think are neutral, but it turns out they are not.
Because always, being human, the things we do have an impact on those around us and often in ways we could not have imagined.
This book very much left me with two main thoughts: One, I remember how awful high school could be and I remember how utterly affected I was by the things my peers did (sometimes that is still the case and I am well out of my teens). Two, I never really took the time to think about how my own actions may have affected others – either good or bad. I don’t think (I hope!) I have never done anything too terrible but what struck me is that many of the characters in this book never did anything too terrible either.
Just like in life, in the book there are multiple sides to every story. A callous or unkind action by one person is often the reaction to another previous callous or unkind action; the book does a great job of highlighting this while not losing sight of the fact that we are always responsible for our choices, and I think that is one of the main points of this book. Even as Hannah, the deceased girl, is pinpointing how the actions of others affected her, she sometimes acknowledges that the person didn’t intentionally mean to hurt her in the way they did. But there are always consequences to our choices and we have to own them and hopefully learn from them and do better in the future.
Unfortunately in this book, the worst possible consequence has happened and a teenage girl took her own life. It is awful and tragic and it should never happen, ever (oh, that teenagers could see what we see with the privilege of years stretching between us and the trauma and heartbreak of our youth! Perspective!) Ironically Hannah acknowledges that, while she has been irrevocably changed by the things that happened in her life, some of her own choices led her to her decision to commit suicide and in a way she accepts the consequences this will have on others.
In the end, reading the book wholeheartedly reinforced my belief that having young people exposed to this type of material in the proper context and with the proper guidance can only serve to open a dialogue – one that will hopefully – although not automatically – help a struggling young person find a way to cope with whatever they are facing. Certainly the author has noted that he has received feedback from readers affirming that this was the case for them (he started the Thirteen Reasons Project to give young people a place to post their thoughts on the book).
From a reader’s perspective, the only criticism I have is that the book jumped right to the young man receiving the tapes without much preamble or background. It felt a bit abrupt to me, but once I got rolled up into Hannah’s story I forgot about that and was hooked. Despite my perspective here, I think that this was the author’s point and he executes the book extremely well in my opinion. He very much does justice to the range of emotions we all go through and the sensitivity of the topic, in a very thought-provoking manner.
More than controversy, I love books that make me feel something and this one made me feel like finding ways in my own life to be a kinder and better person – now who could argue for banning that?