I don’t know what’s happening in your neck of the woods, but in mine every conversation seems to be about some aspect of the shooting at the midnight showing of the latest Batman flick in Aurora, Colorado.
Questions are flying. What kind of lunatic could do a thing like this? Why aren’t there stricter gun-control laws in America? Do violent movies and video games play a role in the creation of a society where such psychotic outbursts are becoming increasingly common? Is it responsible parenting to bring your baby or young child to a midnight showing of a violent movie? Is the United States just joining the ranks of countries where explosions and kamikaze executions are not out of the ordinary? Is the media to blame for sensationalizing the event and butting in to the victims’ privacy? In the last few days, I’ve heard a wide range of opinions in answer to these questions from across the spectrum. If there’s one thing I must say about this event is that at least it has people talking. But will that talk change anything?
While all of those questions are valid and worthy of lengthy discussions elsewhere, what concerns me in relation to this blog is how might parents and educators talk to kids about what happened? Are there books out there that deal with such matters in a direct but sensible way? If we’re talking recent releases, Red Heart Tattoo, a new book published on Tuesday by Lurlene McDaniel (Don't Die, My Love; Heart to Heart; Telling Christina Goodbye) hits pretty close to the mark, albeit with a few key differences.
Summoning up eerie remembrances of the Columbine shootings that happened more than 13 years ago, Red Heart Tattoo involves not a mass shooting, but a bombing perpetrated by two freshman outsiders. On the day before Thanksgiving, as students are gathered in a high school’s atrium in Grandville, Michigan, a huge explosion demolishes a good portion of the building-- killing nine, critically injuring 15, and maiming 22. It’s a shocking event, but McDaniel handles it and its aftermath with grace and intention.
Prior to the moment when the bomb detonates, McDaniel sets up her story in a manner long-time fans will recognize. Her characters are archetypes, but it doesn’t detract from the read. There’s the perfect couple, beautiful and smart student council president Morgan and her hunky soccer stud boyfriend Trent, “the jock and the princess—a Disney movie in living color.” There’s Morgan’s best friend Kelli, a cheerleader, and Kelli’s once-devoted boyfriend Mark. And then there’s Roth, a shady character obsessed with Morgan who is targeted as a prime suspect, despite his saving a number of students from the wreckage immediately following the explosion. Cliques abound at Edison High. Dating. Homecoming dances. Taking tests. Gym. The usual YA school/romance-related fluff (although a spoiler alert for parents: Kelli is hiding a secret unintentional pregnancy from her friends and parents).
Until the bomb goes off and changes everyone’s life forever. Without giving anything away (hint: lead characters do die), it’s safe to say that McDaniel does her best to portray the aftermath in as much of a realistic manner as possible. PTSD. Serious depression. Stricken parents. Nagging and often insensitive media coverage. Lawyers. Support groups. You name it.
Perhaps the most interesting choice McDaniel makes is her treatment of the bombers’ identities (they are aptly nicknamed Executioner and Apocalypse). While some readers might think the names corny or heavy-handed, for others it might not be that far off. Take a gander at some of the dialog between the two characters:
Executioner: “How—um—how much mess will there be?”
Apocalypse: “Enough to cause a nice explosion. Flash, noise—bomb stuff. Sort of like a hand grenade, but on a timer.”
Apocalypse: “Credit will never be ours. And we’re not going down with the ship like those Columbine dudes. We just walk away. Because I’m smart about this and because we can.”
When asked by the media why they did it and if they bombed the school because they were bullied, their response was:
Apocalypse: “Because I could. Because I felt like it. I was nothing to them. They were nothing to me . . . They don’t even know we’re alive.”
It’s all pretty straightforward and elementary here and that’s what scary. They didn’t do it because they were bullied or because they wanted to make a name for themselves. They didn’t do it because they had awful childhoods and were getting back at their parents. They did it because they could. Just as easy as it was for these kids to construct a homemade bomb out of parts they ordered from the Internet, James Holmes drummed up a few firearms, riot gear, tear gas, and a couple thousand rounds of ammunition and shot up a theater.
McDaniel doesn’t provide any answers in her slim book, but that’s where you come in. It’s up to parents and teachers to strike up discussions, and for kids to talk about this type of behavior on their own. There are plenty of other books out there that address the topic from different perspectives. Feel free to recommend some in the comments section below.
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children's and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.
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