Jasper Jones takes place in a small town in Australia in the late 1960s. A boy named Charlie Bucktin is reading in his room late at night, when another boy, Jasper Jones, knocks at his window and tells him to come out. Jasper begs Charlie to come with him, and because of his respect for Jasper, Charlie obliges.
As Jasper leads Charlie through the town where they live, Corrigan, Charlie thinks about what he knows about Jasper. Jasper is “half-caste,” meaning that one of his parents is white, while the other is Aboriginal. Because of his mixed race, he is blamed for every misfortune or crime in Corrigan. His father is a lazy drunk, and Jasper has long been forced to take care of himself.
Jasper leads Charlie past the river and into a clearing in the bushes. It is here that Jasper lives and sleeps. Jasper shows Charlie what he has discovered: the body of a young girl, hanging by a rope from a tree. Jasper explains that the girl is Laura Wishart, a girlfriend of his. Jasper claims that he found Laura hanging there earlier in the night, and went to Charlie for help because he believes that Charlie is wise, trustworthy, and loyal. Charlie, horrified by the sight of a dead body, tells Jasper that they need to alert the police, but Jasper insists that if they do so, Jasper will be arrested for the crime and sent to jail. Jasper convinces Charlie to hide Laura’s body by throwing it in the nearby river. He and Charlie must try to find the real killer—only in this way can Jasper clear his own name. Jasper suggests that the real killer is Mad Jack Lionel, a mysterious, reclusive old man who supposedly killed a young woman years ago. It’s a traditional feat of bravery in Corrigan to sneak onto Mad Jack’s land and steal peaches from his tree.
The next day, Charlie spends time with his parents, Wesley Bucktin and Ruth Bucktin. Charlie greatly admires his father, who shares his love for writing. Charlie believes that Wesley is secretly working on a novel in his library, and wishes that Wesley would talk to him about it. Charlie dislikes his mother, whom he finds controlling and petty. Years ago, she nearly died giving birth to Charlie’s younger sister, who died shortly thereafter. Ruth, who comes from a wealthy family in a large city, hates her life in Corrigan, a fact that everyone but Wesley notices.
Charlie’s best friend is Jeffrey Lu, an intelligent, humorous Vietnamese boy. Because Corrigan has sent many soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War, Jeffrey must cope with the racism of the townspeople. In spite of his superior cricketing abilities, Jeffrey is forbidden from playing on the town cricket team by Warwick Trent, a bully who constantly threatens both Jeffrey and Charlie. We also see that Charlie is terrified of insects, and has a crush on Laura’s beautiful, intelligent sister, Eliza Wishart. Whenever he sees Eliza, Charlie has a strong urge to tell her what he knows about Laura. Nevertheless, Charlie keeps quiet, remembering that he’s promised Jasper his help and loyalty.
Charlie researches other murders that have occurred near Corrigan, and uncovers some gruesome information about serial killers. He finds it difficult to understand why people kill and hurt others, though he considers the possibility that they do so because they were bullied and marginalized themselves.
When he comes home from the library, Charlie is surprised to find that his parents, especially Ruth, are furious with him for leaving the house without telling them—there is a search party looking for Laura, and the neighborhood is keeping a close watch on all children. Ruth forces Charlie to dig a hole and then fill it in, a process that takes hours. Charlie despises his mother for punishing him in this way, but Wesley encourages him to deal with her diplomatically and politely.
Jeffrey Lu and his family face harassment from the townspeople. A woman named Sue Findlay yells at Mrs. Lu and pours hot water on her body because she blames Mrs. Lu for her husband’s death in Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, Charlie sneaks out of his house at night to reunite with Jasper Jones in the glade. He learns that Jasper has been arrested and beaten up by the local police. Jasper tells Charlie that he plans to sneak onto Jack Lionel’s property to find evidence of his culpability in killing Laura. He also confesses to Charlie that he’d been out of the town in the days leading up to Laura’s death—if he had been in Corrigan, then he could have met up with Laura in his glade and possibly have protected her. Charlie feels enormous sympathy for Jasper. He fantasizes about leaving Corrigan with Jasper, and driving through Australia like the protagonists of one of his favorite novels, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Before they leave the glade, Charlie makes an important discovery—someone has written the word “Sorry” on the tree where Laura was hanged.
When he returns to his house that night, Charlie learns that his parents have found him missing. He quickly makes up a story about going to visit Eliza, and to his great surprise, his parents, along with the police, accept Charlie’s story as the truth. Afterwards, Charlie is grounded, and he spends the next two weeks reading and writing in his room. Charlie’s misbehavior creates a distance between Ruth and Wesley—Ruth blames Wesley for turning Charlie against her.
At the end of Charlie’s two weeks indoors, he goes to see Jeffrey play for the Corrigan cricket team. By a fluke, Jeffrey has been allowed to sub out for another player. During the match, Eliza sees Charlie, and sits next to him. Although Charlie feels very awkward around Eliza, he charms her, and she tells him that she finds him very sweet. They kiss, and Charlie feels happier than he’s felt in weeks. Meanwhile, Jeffrey plays brilliantly, winning the cricket match for Corrigan. As a result, he wins the grudging respect of his cricket team, even Warwick Trent.
The night after the cricket match, a group of four men visits Jeffrey’s house, where they destroy his father An Lu’s prized garden. Charlie, who is the first to see the vandalism, screams for his father, who immediately runs outside and takes on all four of the men. Shortly thereafter he’s joined by other neighbors, who beat up the vandals. Charlie is deeply inspired by his father’s heroism.
On New Year’s Eve, Charlie is planning to spend time with Eliza at the town’s traditional fireworks show. Eliza hints that she has something important to tell Charlie. Before he can meet up with her, Charlie sees Jasper outside his window, insisting that Charlie accompany him to Mad Jack Lionel’s house. Jasper explains that he has searched Mad Jack’s property, where he’s seen an old car with the word “Sorry” scratched on it. He plans to go to Mad Jack’s house, tell him what he knows, and force him to confess to killing Laura. Charlie reluctantly agrees to accompany Jasper, even though he’s skeptical that Jasper’s plan will work, or that Mad Jack killed Laura in the first place.
At Mad Jack’s house, Charlie is amazed to see that Jack is a polite, lonely old man who isn’t the least bit hostile to either Jasper or Charlie. Jasper angrily tells Jack that he knows Jack killed “her.” Jack begins to cry, and confesses that he did so. When Jasper provides more details about Laura’s death, Jack looks confused. Over the course of the next hour, Jack reveals the truth: Jack is Jasper’s own grandfather. Years ago, Jasper’s father, David Jones, married a beautiful Aboriginal woman named Rosie Jones. Jack didn’t approve of the marriage because Rosie wasn’t white. As a result, David shunned his father and changed his surname. After Rosie gave birth to Jasper, Jack changed his mind about Rosie, and indeed, became a close friend to her. One day, while Jack was alone with Rosie, Rosie had an attack of appendicitis. Jack tried to drive her to the nearest hospital, but got into a horrible car crash that killed Rosie. As a result, David never spoke to his father again, and never told Jasper about him. Jack tells Jasper that he wishes he had died in the crash instead of Rosie. He adds that he has always believed that Jasper was avoiding him because David had told Jasper about Rosie’s death. Now, Jack realizes the truth: Jasper avoided him because he had no idea who Jack was.
Jasper and Charlie are stunned by Jack’s explanation. They leave Jack’s house in a daze, going their separate ways. As he’s walking home, Charlie runs into Eliza, who tells him that she has crucial information. Eliza takes Charlie to Jasper’s glade. Along the way, Charlie sees his mother with another man, and realizes that she’s been having an affair. He angrily tells her that he’ll never listen to her again.
In Jasper’s glade, Eliza tells Charlie that she is responsible for Laura’s death. Eliza claims that she followed Laura to Jasper’s glade on the night Laura died. She silently watched as Laura sat and waiting for “someone” to arrive. Eventually, Laura climbed up a tree, tied a rope around her neck, and hanged herself. Eliza produces a letter that she claims to have found underneath Laura’s hanging body.
Eliza reads Charlie the letter, which is addressed to Jasper Jones. In it, Laura explains that her father, Pete Wishart, had raped and abused her for years. The day she died, Laura discovered that her own father had impregnated her. She tried to tell her mother what he father had done, but amazingly, her mother didn’t believe her. Afterwards, Laura’s father went into her room and beat her savagely, warning her never to talk about his abusiveness again. Eliza heard screams from Laura’s room, and then saw Laura running out of the house. She followed Laura to Jasper’s glade, where she witnessed the suicide. A few nights later, haunted by her own guilt at having watched passively as her sister killed herself, Eliza returned to Jasper’s glade and wrote “sorry” on the tree.
Charlie is traumatized by what Eliza tells him. Eliza asks him what he knows about Laura, and Charlie admits that he moved Laura’s body with Jasper’s help. Eliza is pained by this information, but she forgives Charlie. As they sit together in the glade, Jasper arrives, and demands to know what Eliza is doing there. Eliza explains everything she’s previously told Charlie. As she does so, Jasper moans and screams, and then dives into a nearby waterhole. Charlie jumps after him, pulling him to the surface and embracing him. He realizes that Jasper’s image of charisma and bravery is just a mask, disguising his fear, sadness, and loneliness. Jasper tells Eliza that he is responsible for Laura’s death—if he’d been in Corrigan at the time, then he could have consoled Laura and convinced her to live. Eliza doesn’t disagree with anything Jasper says. She suggests that they tell the police about Pete’s crimes. Jasper and Charlie reject this suggestion. If they go to the authorities, they argue, then Jasper will once again be blamed for Laura’s death, just as he’s blaming himself now. Charlie comes to the frustrating conclusion that the best option is to keep the true circumstances of Laura’s death a secret. He also notices that Eliza seems to blame Jasper for Laura’s death, and wants to punish him appropriately.
As he thinks about Jasper, Charlie remembers a childish argument he’s had with Jeffrey about the merits of Batman and Superman. Like Batman, he realizes, he has to embrace and accept his fears and limitations, rather than aspiring to be like Superman, who has neither fears nor limitations.
The next day, Eliza, Jasper, and Charlie go their separate ways. Charlie senses that he’ll never see Jasper again—he’s going to leave Corrigan for good. When Charlie returns, he finds his mother packing to leave Corrigan, too. She’s told Wesley about her affair. Ruth never returns to Corrigan—she lives with her wealthy relatives, not speaking to either Wesley or Charlie. Wesley takes care of Charlie on his own, and finishes the novel he’s been working on. Charlie is the first to read it, and he finds it beautiful and brilliant.
At the end of the novel, Charlie performs a feat of “bravery” that impresses the schoolchildren of Corrigan. He sneaks onto Mad Jack’s property and steals peaches. To impress his peers even more, Charlie stages a “fight” with Jack, promising Jack that he’ll make up the favor by making Jack dinner soon. Charlie walks off of Mad Jack’s property, applauded and cheered by the schoolchildren. Even Warwick Trent acknowledges that Charlie has shown great bravery. Amused, Charlie thinks to himself that it took more bravery for him to pick up the peaches, which were crawling with bugs, than to sneak onto Jack’s property.
Suddenly, someone sees a plume of smoke in the distance. Charlie runs toward the smoke, and sees that Eliza’s house is on fire. Her parents are alive, though her father is in an oxygen mask, with burns on his body. Charlie realizes that it was Eliza who burned the house, and realizes that he’ll never fully understand her motives. He also recognizes that Jasper will be blamed for this act of arson, and forced to stay away from Corrigan for the rest of his life. This news saddens Charlie, but doesn’t worry him—he knows that Jasper is too clever to be caught by the police. Charlie walks towards Eliza, who continues to look calmly at the fire, and whispers “the perfect words” in her ear.