“13 Reasons Why” Book Review

Banned Book Week: dark and poignant, Jay Asher’s controversial novel explores teen mental health and the impact of suicide.

Want your views of the world to flip upside down? Just press play. 

If you haven’t heard of the hit Netflix series or the New York Times best-seller turned top 10 most challenged book “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, then buckle up for an intensely real yet riveting read. 

 The story follows high schooler Clay Jensen as he discovers through anonymously delivered casette tapes, thirteen reasons why his fellow student, Hannah Baker, took her own life two weeks prior to the start of the book.

To express the full extent of her reasons, Hannah leaves directions for listeners to significant locations around their city via her voice and markings on a map to further immerse the tape listeners in her story and how they all got her wrong.

 An intriguingly compelling, but dark, plot awaits the reader from the get-go, addressing a wide variety of taboo topics such as teen suicide and sexual assault in a way that doesn’t talk about it just to talk about it. Not sugar coating the severity of Hannah’s imperfect life, the book shows how Clay struggles to come to terms with the constant devastating reveal of the overlooked and broken girl that lies behind the voice overs.

Through the use of a two person perspective, alternating from Hannah’s raw, unapologetic telling of her story and Clay’s personal experience and reaction to her tapes, the book finds a balance between harsh honesty and the power of human emotion. 

Each side of the tape is dedicated to one of the 13 people, and the slow reveal of the pieces coming together leaves the reader feeling empty, yet somehow wanting to know more, as it all unfolds.

I’ve never seen a storytelling structure quite like this, although the reasons behind it raise questions about Hannah Baker’s true motives for creating the tapes.

As a reader, this take on Hannah’s explanation behind her death is both captivating and horrifying, but it is not by any means a reasonable thing to leave for others as a parting gift.

Some professionals and parents across the media expressed concern over the TV series and book, saying that it could influence the idea of suicide cognition—the phenomenon where being exposed to suicide increases the chances of attempting it—among more vulnerable viewers, as well as a false portrayal of the use of suicide as a revenge plan for wrongdoers.

Seeing that neither her parents nor any other person she truly loved received her tapes, the reason behind their existence was somewhat manipulative of Hannah to force upon others. Hannah uses them to show her pain, but more so to blame her classmates for her death through their actions. But, though most characters who receive tapes should be held accountable for their actions, no one can be responsible for one’s decision to take their own life. 

Hannah, as a character, used the tapes as a way to inflict guilt and the idea of “now you see me” to the listeners after her death, but the book was never implying that Hannah is a role model—in fact, she’s the opposite. Rather, she is a representation of the harsh reality of what teenagers go through. Hannah’s unchangeable and heartbreaking end shows the importance of seeking help to get through one’s problems before it’s too late.

She is flawed and makes mistakes, but she represents that a person’s pain is no less valid than any other’s. Although her motives for the tapes and her way of going about her pain could have been done differently, Hannah represents the pain often dismissed in people’s lives and she serves as an example of how addressing those pains is crucial to help a person going through them.

In addition, even with all this pain and suffering undergone by protagonists Hannah and Clay, there are moments that show both sides of the story, not just through two perspectives, but also through the idea that life isn’t black and white—all bad or all good. 

Furthermore, despite the questioning of the show and book, Jay Asher told PBS on a Newshour interview that, many adolescent and authoritative viewers reached out to him saying that the book encouraged them to reach out for help and allowed them to feel understood for their experiences in a way they had not been able to before. 

Yes, the book is sad and somewhat depressing to read; seeing a predestined plot unwind before your own eyes as a teenage girl loses her faith in the world, with no ability to change the outcome, is not easy.  

But maybe that’s the point.

Unlike the show, which gained much more criticism for its portrayal of suicide, the book does not stray from the importance of advocating for teenagers experiences. The show often displayed over-the-top graphic visuals of scenes and, throughout the seasons, altered the fundamental values of the book for unnecessary drama and entertainment. On the contrary, the book was made not to romanticize or dramatize topics that affect people in tremendously horrible ways, but rather to acknowledge that this pain is present, even if never seen or accepted. 

Hannah goes through experiences no person should have to go through, and she goes through them alone. The book does not glaze over her pain but instead shows the consequences of not being able to talk about it. Her choice was a painful decision that didn’t spare her from her suffering but rather permanently destroyed her ability to live beyond it. 

Like anything, all things aren’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean they should be for no one. Despite the debate among the book and TV show audience, banning a book that opens up about the taboo struggles of teenagers only further closes off necessary conversations and forbids those topics as territory for discussion. 

Although “Thirteen Reasons Why” is controversial, it is crucial to allow people to read books depicting these kinds of topics because they do not deserve to be ignored.