The History of “School Shooting” Literature
As far as I can tell, the roots of school shooting literature dates back to the 1970’s with Stephen King’s book Rage. Written while King was still in high school in 1965, this book was originally published in 1977 under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. In Rage, the main character, Charlie is a high school student who shoots one of his teachers and takes his classmates hostage.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Rage was linked to several school shooting incidents and even though, King admits that the book provides an honest portrayal of the experiences of children in high school, it was taken out of print, and King’s website notes: “No future printings will be made of this novel [Rage] at Stephen's request due to the sensitive nature of the content.”
But as Crutcher drove home, he started thinking. He started thinking about the type of kid that would carry out a school shooting. He started thinking about the experiences of a kid that would be capable of such violence. By the time Crutcher had driven the hour home, he had decided to write a book. But, as luck would have it, the manuscript was on his editor’s desk when news of Columbine spread. Crutcher talks about his decision to pull the book in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. The book was never published in its original form even though Crutcher did salvage some of the characters and key chapters from the original novel: it eventually became Whale Talk.
Both of these examples illustrate a hesitancy among authors to write about school violence. Crutcher, a strong voice against censorship, did not scrap his original manuscript and rewrite the story as an act of censorship, but rather as a show of sensitivity to the families affected by the shootings. Since Columbine, however, several authors have courageously taken on school shootings in their novels for young adults, providing insight into gun violence, bullying, and mental illness.
Each of the following books offers a unique perspective for readers on school violence. Within this small, sub-genre of literature, authors have written about the lives of the shooters; the lives of the families, friends, enemies, and girlfriends of shooters; the victims and survivors of shootings; and the aftermath of school shootings.
To begin, Todd Strasser’s Give a Boy a Gun (2000) provides one response to mass shootings in America’s schools, specifically Columbine High School. The book takes place at fictional Middletown High School and is a collection of interviews, notes, diary entries, emails and online conversations which give readers a unique and chilling experience. As told from the point of view of neighbors, classmates, parents, and other community members, readers begin to understand why the shooters, teenagers Gary and Brendan, go to the school dance heavily armed and hold their classmates and teachers hostage. The two boys, victims of bullying by athletes at the school, gain access to guns and weapons, and Strasser clearly advocates for gun control throughout the text, as evidenced by the footnotes containing facts about gun violence.
Shooter by Walter Dean Myers (2004) was also written in the aftermath of Columbine. This book, like Strasser’s, is written in an alternative format, emulating a threat assessment analysis report that brings the story to life. Including realistic transcripts of interviews, newspaper clippings, autopsy reports, and diary excerpts makes the book read like a report of an actual school shooting rather than a fictional account. The book opens with an interview of Cameron Porter, an African-American teen and friend of the shooter, Leonard “Len” Grey. As the readers evaluate the data, they soon realize that bullying sits at the heart of the novel; the bullying Len experienced resulted in his violent shooting spree. In fact, right before shooting himself, Len wrote on the wall of the school “Stop the Violence” in blood, an ironic statement in the midst of the violence created by Len himself.
End Game by Nancy Garden (2006) takes the readers into the mind of Gray Wilson, a fourteen year old on trial for four counts of murder and one count of assault with intent to murder for opening fire on classmates at his school. The book begins in juvenile detention as Gray awaits trial. Throughout the novel, Mr. Falco, Gray’s lawyer, visits him to ask questions about the events. Gray’s feelings of being out of control of his life escalate as he experiences torture by bullies at school who not only vandalize his favorite drum set, kill his dog, and cause him to lose his only friend, but also sexually and physically abuse him. He cannot find allies at home or at school, and eventually, his frustration turns into violence. The readers begin to empathize with Gray as he reveals the atrocities committed by the bullies, but his lack of remorse and inability to understand the severity of his actions shows that Gray must be held accountable for his actions, regardless of the bullying.
Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009) is told from the perspective of the shooter’s girlfriend, Valerie Leftman. The story begins with a newspaper clipping describing the shooting, followed by Valerie’s return to school after the shooting. Even though Valerie was shot during the spree, her feeling of responsibility for the shooting is clearly a factor. Nick, Valerie’s boyfriend, chose targets for his killing spree based on a list written by he and Valerie. The list referred to as the “hate list,” included people and things that annoyed the couple, but Valerie never imagined Nick would use the list as a list of potential victims, nor did she imagine Nick was capable of such a violent act. In fact, once Valerie realized what was happening during the shooting that day in the cafeteria, she took a bullet in order to save one of the victims. This book is a story of healing and hope in the face of tragedy.
Silent Alarm by Jennifer Banash (2015) tells the harrowing story of a school shooting from the shooter’s sister’s point of view. The main character struggles with the image of the brother that she loved and the boy who not only shot and killed fifteen people before turning the gun on himself, but also pointed the gun at his own sister. As she tries to reconcile her memories, her brother continues to haunt her. Meanwhile, Alys’s long-time best friend and boyfriend both abandon her, and she finds a surprise friend in Luke’s best friend, who is also caught up in the aftermath of the shooting. This heartbreaking story illustrates the strength of the main character as she figures out how to rebuild her life.
Violent Ends (2015) is a seventeen chapter anthology, with each chapter written by different, recognizable YA authors, including Shaun David Hutchinson, Tom Leveen, Neal and Brendan Schusterman, Kendare Blake, and others. The book revolves around the story of Kirby Matheson: a saxophone player, a reader, and a boy with friends, who became a school shooter. In twenty-two minutes, Kirby changes the lives of his community forever by entering his high school gymnasium, killing six people and injuring five others. Each chapter tells a different victim’s story, including Kirby’s neighbor, sister, and even his gun. The book considers the many dimensions of school shooters’ lives and provides interesting viewpoints on the many factors involved in the aftermath of a shooting spree.
This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (2016) tells the story of a mass shooting that takes place at fictional Opportunity High School. The story begins at 10:01 am as the principal of Opportunity High School ends her semester welcome speech. When students begin to head for the doors of the auditorium after the speech, they all realize that they cannot get out. The doors are locked. Soon, Tyler takes center stage, holding a gun, and everybody in the auditorium finally pays attention. Tyler’s sister, Autumn, along with almost every student at the high school, is in the audience. This book alternates between multiple points of view and takes place during the span of just 14 hours. As the reader enters Tyler’s point of view, we realize that Tyler blames his sister, his mother, his ex-girlfriend, and his school for abandoning him, and his anger pervades everything that he does and says. Autumn also tells her story, and through her, we learn about Tyler’s home life and his sister’s love in spite of his flaws; Sylvia, Autumn’s girlfriend, is terrified of Tyler, and as she tells her story, we hear about another side of Tyler. Nijkamp also includes perspectives from Claire, Tyler’s ex-girlfriend, and Tomás, Sylvia’s twin brother and Tyler’s arch-enemy. All of these points of view create a multidimensional story that helps readers to fully grasp the impact the shooting has on each of the characters.