When readers first meet six-year-old Zach Taylor, he’s squeezed into the coat closet of his classroom, hiding for his life with the rest of his first-grade classmates and their teacher. The closet is damp from the jackets still drying after a rainy recess. He can smell his teacher’s morning coffee still on her breath. And down the hall, there’s a distinct sound: POP POP POP. This is where Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, begins.
Published by Knopf in February, Only Child transports readers into an event that has become all-too-familiar in the United States: a mass casualty school shooting. Told through the perspective of Zach himself, Navin’s novel takes a hard look at not only what it means to live in the country with the highest rate of murder by firearm in the developed world, but what in particular that means for the young people who are learning how to survive a culture of deadly violence they played no part in creating.
Navin’s inspiration for Only Child came two years ago, from her then-kindergartener son Garrett, who she found hiding underneath the family’s dining room table the afternoon after he experienced his first school lockdown drill — a potentially lifesaving preparatory measure that President Donald Trump, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, recently called for eliminating from schools, before retracting into the idea of simply renaming the drills to something that would make the idea of practicing for a mass casualty shooting more palatable to America’s school children. But Trump’s ill-conceived mutterings, considered in light of Navin’s own experience — which put her directly into the mind of both her young son and her fictional narrator, Zach — do beg the kinds of questions that Only Child asks: what is it really like for a child to anticipate having to respond to a shooting? And, more importantly: is this the best we can give our young people — the terror of preparing for a shooter attacking their school, in hopes they’ll be better equipped to live through the immeasurably greater terror of the real thing?
When the shooting at Navin’s fictional McKinley Elementary School is over, 19 students and faculty have been killed — including Zach’s 10-year-old brother, Andy. The shooter himself, the teenage son of the school’s beloved security guard, Charlie, is also dead. And the survivors — many also just young victims themselves — are left to make sense of it all. In the days, and then weeks after the shooting, though McKinley’s doors remain closed, some students have returned to classes at nearby elementary schools. The media frenzy outside has begun to die down. But inside the Taylor house, Zach’s journey is just beginning:
"Outside of our house it looked like everything stayed normal and the same. When I looked out of my window, I noticed that real life was still there on our street, and it looked like before. Mr. Johnson was still taking Otto for walks around the neighborhood, and the garbage truck still came, and the mailman still brought the mail in the afternoon at four, always at the exact same time almost… All the same stuff was still on TV, and they were still talking about the same stuff in the commercials, like how awesome Froot Loops are, like everything was how it always was and it still mattered."
While the adults around him lose themselves in a whirlwind of anger, violence, revenge, and hopelessness: demanding justice from the killer’s parents, scrambling for the media spotlight before the rest of the world moves on, fighting among each other, and even succumbing to suicide, Zach himself turns to two things: his Magic Treehouse novels, which he reads aloud hoping that Andy, somewhere out there, can hear him; and making “feelings pages” — paintings that allow him to separate and better understand his emotions: black for scared, gray for sad, red for embarrassed, green for angry, yellow for happy, white for sympathy, and one large sheet of paper with a hole cut through the middle for lonely:
"I waited for the feelings pages to dry, and then I went and got tape from the kitchen and hung them up on the wall inside my hideout. That was a good spot for them. I could lie down on Andy’s sleeping bag and look at the feelings. Now they were separated and that made it easier to think about them."
In Only Child, Navin is mindful of staying away from explicitly addressing one thing: the politics of gun control. With her use of a six-year-old narrator, this is perhaps not difficult to do. Because Zach, who is still hiding out in his dead brother’s closet, wetting the bed, screaming from night terrors, experiencing outbursts of rage, and watching his family implode, couldn’t care less about gun control — even though he now knows more about living in a culture without it than any politician or political pundit. Zach, by and large, is left behind by the adults making so much noise, and chaos, and darkness around him — and making decisions for him. A least, until he starts raising his voice so loud he can no longer be ignored.
For as complicated as “grown-ups” (and yeah, politics) make gun control, from Zach’s perspective, the solutions are glaringly simple: talk to me instead of the television, have sympathy — a new word in Zach’s first grade vocabulary — for what the people around you are going through, don’t let violence beget more violence, make space for recovery and healing, make space for recovery and healing, explain why this happened to me in a way that makes sense and if it doesn't make sense — because nothing about children dying at their desks in school does — is at least honest. (Zach's BS detector, as it turns out, is pretty accurate.)
And, of course: don’t let this happen to me again.
His messages, while expressed through the still-developing language of a six-year-old, echo many of the same words that the United States, and the world, are hearing from the survivors of the Parkland school shooting — a community of young people with the potential to finally transform America’s gun control debate, and the voices we need to listen to now more than any others; the voices we’ve always needed to listen to more than any others.
Despite accusations of being “crisis actors” and pawns of an anti-NRA political agenda, being discounted for their ideals, humored for their rage-filled optimism, and countered — by politicians, by some in the media, by online bots and trolls — with seemingly endless variations of: “it’s just not that simple,” for these young people, as for Zach, the solution is simple, and the message is loud and clear: STOP. This has to stop. For the young people who have to live through these shootings, this is not complicated: there is young life, and there is young death, and there is a generation of young and emerging activists who’d like to live, please. Maybe we could try it their way, this time. Maybe we could learn from their words. And the words of Zach, who begs the adults around him: “We could try this maybe… Take care of each other. Right?”