People are Dying in There


Lauren Baratz-Logsted

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There may have been a time when parents could send there kids off to school never once giving a thought to whether their children would get shot to death that day, but if there ever was such a time, that time isn’t this time. With all the high-profile school shootings of the past decade or so, it’s impossible not to worry. And whatever infects human thinking eventually finds its way into books. So today we look at school shootings in four books that present similar material in far different ways: one young adult novel, one commercial adult novel, a literary adult novel, and a nonfiction examination of a specific event.

Hate List, Jennifer Brown. Back near the end of junior year, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend Nick Levil brought a gun to school and started shooting. Nick managed to wound or kill several schoolmates and at least one teacher before Valerie got in the way of Nick and a prime target, Jessica. When Nick realized he’d shot his own girlfriend, who was trying to stop him, he turned the gun on himself. Now it’s five months later and Valerie is just returning to school. A lot has happened in the intervening time period. A notebook has emerged, containing the titular Hate List, an extraordinarily long list that Valerie and Nick compiled together of people who bullied them, many of whom were victims on the fateful day. As a result, the police have investigated her as an accomplice, forced to drop the case only when an anonymous student comes forward to say Valerie was trying to stop the killing. Valerie doesn’t want to be back at school and it turns out that almost no one wants her back—people still hold her responsible, despite the police dropping the case. As Valerie grows accustomed to her old surroundings, that seem so changed at first, she realizes how little has changed: no matter what the school principal tells the press about everything being all kumbaya now, most of the things that were awful before are still awful. How can such a huge thing happen and yet no one changes?

In this stunning YA novel, Ms. Brown delivers a fabulous writing performance, channeling a teen in an assured fashion that never breaks its authentic voice. Valerie is a complex character and it’s never anything less than fascinating, observing her as she tries to make sense of her past and her present—not least of which involves the issue of how to feel about Nick, the boy she loved and who loved her back, the boy who turned into a killer—as she moves tentatively toward the future. Eventually Valerie learns that, despite what things appear to be on the surface, some people have been changed: Valerie herself; Jessica, who used to bully Nick and Valerie, but who now is intent on being Valerie’s friend and who responds when Valerie says no one ever told Jessica to try to be Valerie’s friend, “May second told me. I lived, and that made everything different”; and the reader. It’s difficult to imagine teens reading this important book and not coming away from it with a desire to make their world different, better.

Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult. Now seventeen years old, Peter Houghton has been bullied since kindergarten, on the very first day of which an older boy threw Peter’s lunch out the school bus window. Things never got better after that. If anything, they got worse over time. Peter used to have a friend, Josie Cormier, but she’s forsaken Peter for the popular crowd at school, leaving Peter virtually alone in an awful world. So one day Peter takes a gun to his small-town New Hampshire high school and, in just nineteen minutes, manages to take out ten students and one teacher. When the cops find Peter, all he will say is, “They started it.”

It’s easy for reviewers to poke fun at Ms. Picoult for her ripped-from-the-headlines plots and her surprise endings and yet her books can be compulsively readable. Further, they’re more complexly structured than might first appear. In this instance, she elects to tell the story from several viewpoints, including Peter; Josie; Josie’s mother, who is also the judge assigned to Peter’s case in typical Picoultian fashion; Peter’s guilt-ridden mother; even one of Peter’s surviving victims, formerly one of his bullies, now incapable of speech after taking a bullet to the head. The great thing about a Picoult book is that, despite the glitziness, she raises ethical and moral issues that provoke thought in the reader without dictating that thought. When Peter’s trial ends, the question remains: Is Peter a victim, a villain, or a hero in an extraordinarily roundabout way? Ms. Picoult raises the question. It’s up to the reader to answer.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver. A seventeen-year-old boy takes a weapon and . . . Gosh, this is starting to sound repetitive. It’s not until you attempt to write a roundup review like this one that you’re confronted with the fact that even the spectacularly horrific can become trite through sheer repetition of the similar basic facts. And yet each of these books is individual and powerful, so let’s try this again. The eponymous Kevin, seventeen years old, kills seven students and two adults in a single day. But there’s nothing trite about Kevin. His weapon of choice? Unlike the other perpetrators in these books, Kevin favors the medieval crossbow. His past? Yes, like the other juvenile killers, he’s been bullied, but he’s not just a product of how other kids have treated him; rather, Kevin has always been distinctly, well, odd. Really, labeling him a psychopath would not feel like exaggeration.

In an eerie novel reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s own is-this-an-alien-child-in-our-midst? novel, The Fifth Child, Kevin is the kind of boy that even his own mother labels a “Machiavellian miscreant.” In fact, the story is told from the viewpoint of that mother, Eva, in a series of letters she writes to her estranged husband Franklin following Kevin’s incarceration. It’s a layered and compelling picture that emerges through these letters: Eva’s own ambivalence about having children; Kevin’s right-from-the-womb over-the-top behavior, turning from the breast with murderous screams; the rift between Eva and Franklin over how to deal with Kevin, the former being wary and concerned while the latter never sees a problem; the birth of Kevin’s angelic younger sister Celia, whose presence in the world is destined to overturn all the family apple carts. In the wake of school shootings, it’s common to ask of the killer’s parents: “Did they know what kind of kid they had? How could they not know?” Ms. Shriver, at least in this book, seems to come down hard on the idea of “They did know,” at least where Eva is concerned; or “They should have known, if only they weren’t so willfully blind” in the case of the hapless Franklin. In the end, the book reads too much like a contemporary gothic horror story to make a definitive statement about the epidemic of school shootings, but it is intelligently written and gripping nonetheless. One thing that is impossible to miss about Lionel Shriver: the woman can write.

Columbine, Dave Cullen. The only nonfiction book featured in this roundup, this one focuses on the all too real events that transpired in Littletown, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. That was the day that eighteen-year-old Eric Harris and seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold killed thirteen people before killing themselves. In the decade since, Mr. Cullen has conducted hundreds of interviews and has sifted through 25,000 pages of documents as well, plus he’s had access to the journals, notebooks and videotapes of the killers. Not only does Mr. Cullen provide an examination of the facts surrounding the sensational case, he also debunks the story as presented by most of the media at the time. Harris and Klebold weren’t the Goth outcasts from the Trench Coat Mafia that they were portrayed as; rather, they were smart and fairly popular, bullying others far more often than they were bullied themselves. Harris and Klebold didn’t suddenly snap under the weight of all this bullying that they were supposedly subjected to, targeting their tormentors; rather, they’d been planning their big day for almost a year, choreographing a violent dance to prove how much better they were than everyone else, shooting people at random. Oh, and that story about one of the victims expressing her religious faith before getting shot, thereby earning her own death at the hands of the godless villains? Never happened that way.

This is a thorough and disturbing account, disturbing because while analyzing a specific event to the point where the book proves that the event doesn’t fit the stereotypical template formed by other such events, it leaves the reader and society exonerated. If such a truly random act of violence can occur, then why do any of the rest of us need to change anything?   

No, every child who is bullied as Nick is in Hate List, every child who suffers social isolation as Peter does in Nineteen Minutes, every child whose mother is cold and withholding as Kevin’s is in We Need to Talk about Kevin doesn’t start shooting up everyone in sight. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon or even a journalist to point out the logic behind the notion that making a concerted group effort to create a better world, by being nice more often and bullying less often, will surely lead to a reduction in miserable people and might lead to less violence too. As the mother of a nine-year-old, who I send off to school each day hoping she’ll come back, I have to believe that, teach that and live that.   

Books mentioned in this column:
Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve, 2009)
Hate List by Jennifer Brown (Little Brown Young Readers, 2009)
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (Atria, 2007)
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shiver (Harper Perennial, 2006)

Win a free copy of Lauren’s Sisters 8 series! We will be giving away a copy of her current four books in the Sisters 8 series (Annie’s Adventures; Durinda’s Dangers; Georgia’s Greatness; Jackie’s Jokes) to this week’s lucky winner. These books are appropriate for readers aged 4-8. To enter, send us an e-mail with your name. That’s it. For this drawing, all names received on or before Friday, November 13 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold 20 books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Angel’s Choice for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. Her newest published book is the YA novel Crazy Beautiful. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren's life and work at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.



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