Friday, January 24, 2014

One big reason why NOT

I recently finished a book that reminded me of a television movie I saw as a teenager.  Actually, I think I only saw the second half, and I don't even remember the name but it was about a teenage boy who commits suicide.  The part I saw was very emotional and emphasized the impact it had on those left behind - family, friends, even acquaintances.  But aside from the emotional punch, I think I remember it for two reasons.  First, the next day at school I found a printed script for the whole movie - which I read - and which, apparently, had been distributed ahead of time to schools.  And second, I saw an article in the newspaper criticizing the movie - not because it didn't have good intentions, but (if I recall correctly) because studies had shown that such good intentions more often backfire.

The book that brought back these memories is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  It's the fictional story of Hannah Baker who took her own life, but as told by her to a number of her classmates in recordings she left behind.  We hear her story as Clay, a boy who had a crush on her, listens to the tapes where she identifies the people she feels are responsible for her decision.  After each person has listened, they are to mail the tapes to the next person, otherwise a second set of tapes will be made public.  Some of the reasons were boys whose lies resulted in her having a "reputation" at school, friends who betrayed her, girls who pretended to be her friend in order to use her, and worse - much worse!  But it's not the issues that pull you in, it's the characters, which are very well-developed.  And Clay listens to the tapes, wondering what he did that got him included in this awful list.

Naturally, it's a sad and depressing book that left a hopeless and frustrated feeling in me, and yet it's an important topic that too often gets ignored because it's uncomfortable and painful to discuss.  It's also a very popular book right now.  But what concerns me ties back to that earlier experience.  The newspaper article about the television movie pointed out that such stories usually illustrate in very vivid terms the sense of loss felt by those family, friends, and even acquaintances after the fact.  Unfortunately, this is often perceived by teenagers suffering from depression as the attention and compassion they desperately need and aren't receiving, and supposedly studies show that suicides actually increase after such well-intentioned efforts.  

So, how does this book do?  Early on I thought it was falling face first into that mold.  Hannah is a sympathetic character - even if each incident isn't the end of the world, she's been wronged by others, and as the insults mount, Clay is practically writhing in agony over her death (okay, he was maybe a bit overwrought at times).  It isn't until late in the book that we see Hannah as "not fully reaching out for help" and only hinting at her problems to those who might have been able to help.  But Jay Asher does a very good job writing for teens and portraying their world where so much is seen in black and white terms, and given the subject material there's some grittiness here (I don't remember a lot of profanity, but there's some sexual content - although it's not portrayed in a flattering way).

And I was impressed with the format of the book - where Hannah's words are in italics and Clay's thoughts (and conversation with other characters) are in regular type, and they intertwine into a narrative which doesn't always align perfectly, but creates a kind of tension.  (I imagine it would be interesting to listen to the audio version.)  Using the symbols for play, pause, and stop was rather clever, and he used the old medium of cassette tapes rather well - although it's dated, it fits into the more modern story easily.  

But the real question: Would I recommend this book?  It's a dark story that sticks in your thinking for a while and not something I'd want an already depressed teenager to read, and it certainly won't be for a lot of people.  But if it encourages teens to be more aware of the struggles of others, and maybe reach out more... I guess that would be the best possible result.  I might lean more toward recommending it to adults than teens.  So, I guess my answer would be a definite... maybe.


  1. Wow sounds like a really emotional read- I've read a few books that were like that for me, where I wanted to recommend them for their brilliance but also felt torn because they were super dark.

    1. My daughter's friends are all reading it, but yeah - kinda dark.