There have been 160 school shootings since 2018. According to the Washington Post, more than 300,000 students have experienced gun violence in their school since the Columbine shooting in 1999. Every shooting leaves shocked, scared, and traumatized children in its wake. Children who have never had an act of gun violence in their school are also aware of these shootings. They happen in schools just like theirs, towns just like theirs. Sharing books can be a great way to support kids who have fears and to start a conversation about gun violence – but this is not easy, given the very small number of books published on the subject. How can we build a strong collection when there is so little published?
Picture Books That Directly Address Violence:
It can be hard to find picture books that touch directly on any kind of gun violence, and harder to find ones that may meet your collection development policies (multiple professional reviews, published in hardback, and so on). I include two picture books that focus on acts of violence:
A Terrible Thing Happened, written by Margaret M. Holmes and illustrated by Cary Pillo. The book does not specify what kind of terrible thing Sherman saw. We see that it has deeply scared him, and made it difficult for him to get through every day life. Over visits with a counselor, Sherman slowly begins to process and share his feelings and make progress toward feeling better. Suitable for children who have witnessed or survived violence of any kind. (Ages 4-8, the cast is anthropomorphic animals).
Something Happened in Our Park, written by Ann Hazzard, Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins, and illustrated by Keith Henry Brown. When Miles’ cousin is injured in a shooting at a concert in the park, Miles becomes overwhelmed with thoughts about the shooting. Surrounded by many caring grown-ups, Miles is able to develop coping strategies and celebrates with the family as the community works together on peace initiatives. Although this is a different type of gun violence, the themes of working through fears and leaning on support apply to worries about school shootings as well. (Ages 6-11, the majority of the characters are black).
Picture Books That Empower:
It is easier to find picture books that can help children feel safe, uplifted, and empowered to make a difference in their schools and communities. These three are safe bets:
The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade, written by Justin Roberts, illustrated by Christian Robinson. No one notices tiny Sally McCabe, but she notices everything around her— bullying, rudeness, and cruelty in her school. Sally decides to stand up in the cafeteria for kindness, and her action ripples through her community, proving that no matter how small you are, you can still make a difference in your community. (Ages 3-5, diverse cast).
The Breaking News, written and illustrated by Sarah Lynne Reul. An unspecified piece of breaking, bad news worries and upsets the adults in one girl’s life. When her teacher encourages the class to look for the helpers in times of trouble, she decides she wants to help in a big, big way. But when her big ideas don’t seem to work, she finds that even the little things she does to help can make a difference. (Ages 5-8, the family is illustrated with brown skin).
The Umbrella, written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. A child finds a tattered, old umbrella during a storm, but it crumbles to pieces on their way home. At first they feel sad, mad, and disappointed. But over time, the pieces sprout into a field of brand new, bright yellow umbrellas to share. A metaphorical story, this book can open up conversations about how the hard parts of our lives can also help us build up our communities. (Ages 3-7, light-skinned character).
Middle Grade Fiction About School Shootings:
There are a small number of middle grade fiction titles that deal directly with survivors of school shootings:
Aftermath, by Emily Barth Isler. After Lucy’s little brother dies from a heart condition, her family moves for a fresh start. But the town they move to is deeply in the shadow of a school shooting that happened four years ago. Because the main character was not a part of the shooting, this story gives the readers some distance and breathing room while still exploring complex varieties of grief and trauma. (Ages 10-12. Jewish main character, most lead characters read as white).
The Shape of Thunder, by Jasmine Warga. Cora and Quinn have been best friends forever. Until Quinn’s brother brought a gun to school. Until Cora’s sister was one of his victims. Told in alternating points of view, this book tackles the trauma after a school shooting head on, and does not shy away from the emotional impact, but does avoid giving specific detail of the event itself. (Ages 9-13. One main character is Arab American, the other is white).
Simon Sort of Says, by Erin Bow. Before the story begins, Simon was the survivor of a school shooting that killed the rest of his class. Now his family has decided to move to a tiny town dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life, and where there is no internet, no radio, no microwaves – nothing that could interrupt the search for a signal. Simon is excited to move to the only place where people don’t know his face and name, and to get a fresh start. But that fresh start is not everything he hopes. One of the best things about this book is how funny it is – and it works, even with the serious subject matter. Simon is a witty narrator who is both traumatized and whip-smart. Backmatter includes resources for PTSD. (Ages 9-13, one supporting character is mixed race, others present as white).
Resources Are Few and Far Between
These books and others can be used in book lists or, if your library makes them, book bundles for difficult topics. I have a list on our library’s website titled “When Your Child Is Worried About School Shootings,” that includes books like these for caregivers and teachers to use. However, there are very, very few books published on the topic of school shootings, and some of the ones published may not be as sensitive and informed as we’d like. Professional reviews can often give you a better sense of whether a book will help or hinder a child’s sense of safety and understanding. Because my library doesn’t have nonfiction titles on the subject, my lists don’t either, but your collection may differ.
Books do not solve gun violence. They do not prevent it. But many kids out there do need to feel seen, and heard, and understood. Books can at least do that much.
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a Children’s Librarian for Santa Clara County Library. Book covers belong to their publishers, images were created in Canva by the author.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies IV. Collection Knowledge and Management