I loved Only Child, the debut novel from Rhiannon Navin, written from the perspective of a first grader, Zach, who experiences a school shooting. The writing pulled me in so much, I couldn’t put down the book until I finished; I think about the characters and how they dealt with tragedy and loss everyday, and I see the value of empathy now more than ever.
I felt hesitant when I was ready to pick up my copy – we as a country are experiencing the aftermath of a school shooting once again and emotions are difficult to keep in check when thinking about the minute by minute experience of the kids during the occurrence, so I was not sure I was ready to put myself in the position to live through such a frightening, life changing event along with your young elementary school narrator, Zach.
After I finished the last page I decided everyone in the country is ready to read this; in a way it is a guide for how to (and how not to) manage your emotions and understand each other’s feelings and take care of yourself and loved ones during difficult times.
Rhiannon Navin: About two years ago, shortly after my twins Frankie and Garrett started kindergarten, they experienced their first mandatory lockdown drill at school. That same afternoon, I found Garrett hiding from the “bad guy” underneath our dining room table. He was petrified. So I began to wonder: What would it be like for him to experience an actual shooting? And how would he navigate what came afterwards? And so I sat down and wrote the opening scene of Only Child. In this scene, Zach, my six-year old protagonist, is hiding in the closet of his first-grade classroom, together with his teacher and classmates. They are hiding from a gunman who’s at large at the school and who, during the course of his rampage, takes nineteen lives.
BookTrib: How did you get into the head of a first grader?
RN: I used my own kids as my focus group for how Zach might act or speak. In a way, the process of discovering Zach’s character and writing his story brought me closer to them because I paid more attention and watched them intently for clues: What are they thinking right now? How are they processing, expressing themselves? I call my kids by the wrong name all the time— even the cats’ and dog’s names sometimes— and because I hung out with Zach so much while they were at school, I even called them Zach once or twice. They were very confused.
BookTrib: Your characters all dealt with grief in different ways; Zach worked out his feelings with colors on paper, read Magic Treehouse books that in essence were “self help” for kids, and tried to be close with his parents. His mom shut him and the rest of the family out as she turned inward to process her loss alone, and then invested her energy in anger, retaliation and connection with other victim’s families, and Zach’s father did his best to be supportive and present for his son by sitting with him in his hideout and trying to be understanding, but was distracted with his emotions regarding his adult relationships. Do you think there is a right way to deal with grief?
RN: No, there is no right or wrong way. Grief will manifest itself differently for each person and there’s very little you can do to control how it will affect you. In an ideal world, you would seek out help, hold your loved ones close, and try to pass through that trying time together. But as we all know, that’s not how it always plays out in real life. Writing the character of Melissa, Zach’s mom, was very difficult, not only because I often felt her pain like it was my own, but because I also often didn’t agree with her actions. I often felt disappointed in her or even angry sometimes. But—that’s grief. It can be all-consuming and overpowering.
BookTrib: Do you believe Charlie was to blame for his son’s actions?
RN: I think it’s impossible to place blame on any one person or circumstance when a young man like Charles, Jr. in my story, or the many real-life examples we have seen lately, [when they] commit such a horrific act like a school shooting. What surprised me was how much empathy I felt for Charlie and his wife while writing my story. That is not something I expected at first. And now, whenever news of the latest school shooting breaks, my first thoughts are always with the victims and their families of course. But I do also think about the shooter’s family.
While the victims’ families have to deal with their unspeakable losses, the perpetrator’s family is dealing with guilt and shame over their child’s actions in addition to having lost a child. A community comes together and rallies around the victims’ families, while the shooter’s family is ostracized and completely alone with their grief. As a mother, the only thing I can imagine that would be worse than having my child killed in a school shooting would be my child committing one.
Did you intend for this book to be a catalyst for change when it comes to legislation? How do you think it can impact discussions regarding mental illness and gun access and responsibility?
RN: I began writing Only Child without an agenda. I simply needed an outlet for all the fears and worries I am experiencing as a mother of three young children. I lie awake at night worrying about their safety while at school. Writing my story was a way for me to work through my fears and my grief. It was never my intention to get up on my soapbox and shout out my views on gun control. Instead, I wanted my story and my little protagonist’s experience speak for itself. I hope my readers will find themselves in a hopeful place when they reach the end of my book and maybe even feel inspired to take action to be part of the solution, to make sure their child or their neighbor’s child or the child across town doesn’t have to become the next Zach.
BookTrib: Why did you make Andy such a difficult child?
RN: It was important to me not to write a story that would be pitting “good” against “evil.” My goal was to paint a picture of an ordinary family that I can relate to and that many readers will be able to relate to. My characters are all flawed in their own way, because that makes them relatable to me. Zach’s family is an average family dealing with everyday problems. Being married is hard, even under the best of circumstances. Parenting is hard, especially when your child has behavioral challenges, like Andy. The fact that Andy was a difficult child and an unkind brother made the grieving process that much more confusing for Zach and interesting for me.
BookTrib: At the end of the story the family came together, possibly realizing they needed to in order to get to the next stage of grief and begin to go through the motions of living life again. Do you think in the case of Zach’s family, loss will keep them together or break them apart in the end?
RN: I think I left Zach, his family, and his community in a place of hope. Their story is far from over, of course, and they are only beginning to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. But they have started down a path towards healing and forgiveness, and instead of trying to walk it alone, they have come together and will lean on each other.
BookTrib: Only Child was so well done, a deep look into how tragic experiences can influence and shape a young person’s thoughts and actions. Will you write from a child’s perspective again?What are you working on now?
RN: I think I will continue to try writing from unique perspectives. I very much enjoyed putting myself into such completely different shoes. I don’t know if it will be a child’s point of view again. I have begun working on another story. I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it too much, but like Only Child, it’s a story that deals with a family in peril, although an entirely different kind of peril.
BookTrib: Finally, what books have you read lately?
RN: I’ve read a whole range of very different books lately. I just finished Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan and absolutely loved it. Before that I read One Goal by Amy Bass and The Devil’s Claw by Lara Dearman, both crazy talented friends of time. Next up is How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, very excited for that one.
For more information on the author, visit her website at www.rhiannonnavin.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhiannon Navin grew up in Bremen, Germany, in a family of book-crazy women. Her career in advertising brought her to New York City, where she worked for several large agencies before becoming a full-time mother and writer. She now lives outside of New York City with her husband, three children, two cats, and one dog. Only Child is her first novel.