“I remember that day as clearly as I remember 9/11,” Only Child author Rhiannon Navin says of Dec. 14, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. She’d packed up her twin babies and dropped off her six-year-old son at his Manhattan school, thinking, as always, “My son’s at a safe place.”
“Then the news started to come,” Navin says by phone from New Rochelle, New York, where her family has since relocated, “and I was devastated for days: for the parents of the victims, for the community, and for my family, too. All of a sudden, school wasn’t necessarily a given ‘safe place’ anymore.”
Five years hence, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, an additional 220 shootings have occurred on school campuses nationwide. Regularly scheduled lockdown drills begin in elementary school, which Navin learned firsthand from her twins.
“They came home and told me all about their first lockdown drill,” a few weeks into kindergarten, she says. “Then a couple hours later, I found my little guy, Garrett, under the table. I said, ‘Buddy, what are you doing under the table?’ And he said, ‘Hiding from the bad guy.’ That really [upset] me, and that is how I came to write this story—it just kind of poured out of me.”
Navin’s stunning debut novel, Only Child, is the story of an elementary school shooting and its aftermath told from the perspective of six-year-old survivor Zach Taylor.
“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath,” Navin writes. “It was hot and smelled like coffee. The closet was dark except for a little light that was coming in through the crack of the door that Miss Russell was holding shut from inside.”
Huddled in the closet with his classmates, Zach hears POP POP POPs and screaming. He smells the urine of a classmate who wet their pants in fear. He feels pins and needles from sitting on his left foot, trying to stay still and quiet.
Later, liberation—sirens, emergency services personnel—and evacuation to a nearby church.
“I pretended like I was in a movie with all the lights and the police with their big guns and helmets,” Navin writes. “It gave me an excited feeling. I pretended like I was a soldier who was coming back from a battle and I was a hero now and people were here to see me.”
Not until he’s reunited with his mother, Melissa, does Zach consider the whereabouts of his older brother, Andy, a fifth-grader at the same school. In a stomach-sinking sequence of chapters that fly by, it becomes apparent that Andy did not survive the attack. [is this giving too much away?]
“Zach ends up in a situation where he doesn’t get the support he needs,” says Navin, “and he’s left to his own devices to navigate his feelings, his grief, and the aftereffects of the trauma he’s just experienced. So I tried to think about what would be the resources of a young child like that, when he tries to make sense of the new world he’s in.”
Fueled by painting, books, and the solace of a secret hideout, Zach finds ways to commune with the living and the dead. Through him, Navin compellingly demonstrates a child’s capacity for ingenuity and compassion, in a novel Kirkus calls “a powerful exercise in empathy and perspective.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.