By SARA ARTHURS
Some people want to talk about gun control at Rhiannon Navin’s book events, but many simply want to talk about her book’s characters, or about their own emotions upon reading her novel about a young boy who survives a school shooting.
Navin is the author of “Only Child,” which has been chosen as Findlay’s CommunityREAD. She’ll speak in Findlay next week.
The novel is told through the perspective of 6-year-old Zach Taylor, who survives a shooting in his elementary school in which his brother is killed. The story follows Zach and his family as they work through their grief and trauma in the aftermath.
As Navin notes on her website, Zach is “a thinker, an observer; his wheels are always turning. He takes in so much of what goes on around him. Even when you’re certain he couldn’t possibly have overheard a conversation, guess what? He heard every word.” So, the reader witnesses what the adults are talking about, even though they don’t want Zach to overhear — but Zach communicates this through a child’s eyes.
Navin said writing from a child’s perspective allowed her “to not filter at all” and to “explore the whole range of emotions. … Because a 6-year-old does that.”
A child that age hasn’t yet learned to “censor” himself, she said — for example, to know that it’s not considered OK to speak ill of the dead.
The reader never sees Zach’s brother Andy in real time, but gets to know him through other characters’ memories. Navin said it was interesting to create the character as one step removed, “infused by people’s emotions” about him.
Navin’s oldest child was in first grade at the time of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed.
“He was the same age as the children that died that day,” Navin said.
When she took her son to school, “I always felt I left him in a safe place.” That all changed “in just that one awful day.”
Her younger children are twins, and they started mandatory school lockdown drills in kindergarten. One day Navin came home and found her son under the dining table in their home, saying he was hiding from “the bad guy.” He was “terrified.” As a mother, Navin wanted to make her child feel safe, but didn’t know how.
She started to wonder what it would look like for a child to actually live through a school shooting, or lose a sibling to one, and that sparked the idea for “Only Child.”
In writing the book, Navin did quite a bit of research on grief and how it manifests in children.
She said “Only Child” is “a very political book, and I am a very political person,” but it was not her intention to “step up on my soapbox” with her views about gun control. She simply wanted to tell the story and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
Sometimes when she’s at a book event people want to talk about these issues, and sometimes the political aspects of the issue are “not even mentioned,” as people instead want to talk about their emotional reactions — and about the relationships between the characters.
The biggest surprise among the reactions was “how much the story seemed to resonate with a younger audience.” The book had been marketed as an adult book, but Navin found that teens were also interested.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, occurred just nine days after “Only Child” was released. Navin said she was “really nervous to begin with,” as it was her first book, but after Parkland, she especially didn’t want to come across as trying to take advantage of something so awful.
“We knew there was going to be a shooting at some point because they are so frequent,” but she didn’t expect one of this scale right after the book’s release, Navin said.
It turned out, “people were very eager to speak about it.” At her events, attendees would share their own feelings, work through their own “confusing emotions, or grief.”
While visiting other countries, Navin has encountered a “strange fascination” with the frequency of mass shootings in the United States.
She lives outside of New York City but grew up in Germany, where most of her family remains. She recently held a Skype session with a class in Germany, during which one student asked, “How can you justify raising your children in America?” where there is this risk to their safety, as opposed to Germany.
“I stumbled over that one because I don’t really have a good answer to that question,” Navin said.
She told the girl there is a lot she loves about America, and about raising her children here. Her family is established, and “I’m not uprooting my family.” And, she said, she knows rationally that the likelihood of being shot at school is “significantly lower than it feels,” but that “the risk exists.”
Overseas, she said, “there is a lot of head-scratching” and a frequent question of, “Why isn’t anything being done? Because the solution seems so easy. The solution has worked everywhere else.”
Navin said the intent of telling this story through a child’s perspective is that, “no matter where you are” in your own beliefs about guns, “everybody can empathize with this boy’s experience.” So she hopes the book will not “alienate” anyone on the other end of the spectrum from her.
Navin also gets a lot of questions about the character of Melissa, Zach’s mother, and her response to the shooting. Navin said she wanted to show real, relatable characters who grieve in their own ways — sometimes messy ones.
“All I could do is put myself in her shoes,” she said. Navin has to imagine that, in Melissa’s situation, “I would also lash out” and behave in “a not ideal way.”
CommunityREAD keeps all ages engaged
Rhiannon Navin will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $10 and are available at the ticket office or at marathoncenterarts.org.
Navin’s presentation is the culmination of a series of events for children and adults taking place throughout March. Book discussions have been held at the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library and at 50 North. In addition, presentations have taken place on grief, therapeutic writing and school safety.
Children’s activities have involved organizations like Awakening Minds Art and the Mazza Museum, as well as the library.
The YouthREAD books are “The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld (grades preK-3); “The Distance to Home” by Jenn Bishop (grades 4-5); and “Lost in the Sun” by Lisa Graff (grades 6-8).
CommunityREAD is a month-long community event that “encourages reading and promotes the benefits of literacy,” according to the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library website. It was created by the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation in 2003, and the library assumed responsibility in 2012.
CommunityREAD 2019 and Navin’s presentation are funded by a Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation grant, business and private sponsors, and the library’s general fund.