'Like Columbine! Viva Columbine!' Abjection and the Representation of School Violence in Young Adult Fiction

By Wortley, Emma | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2006 | Go to article overview

'Like Columbine! Viva Columbine!' Abjection and the Representation of School Violence in Young Adult Fiction


Wortley, Emma, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Young adult literature has long been characterised as a genre concerned with the process of coming-of-age, and as such is implicated in Western cultural notions of teenagers: who they are, what is important to them, what they are capable of. When real-life events affect the way we see adolescents, what can we learn from the way such events are explored in young adult fiction?

On the 20th of April 1999 a massacre took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, USA. Teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24 others and then shot themselves. Although there have been school shootings before and since, it was the Columbine massacre that propelled into the cultural realm the idea of white, middle-class, murderous teenagers capable of planning and enacting extreme violence in a school setting.

School massacres possess a certain ideological elasticity. David Schmid, in a discussion of serial murder, notes that particular cultural figures and practices are susceptible to being used in support of different and often contradictory rhetorical messages, and as such become highly visible in culture (Schmid 2005, p.6). This observation brings to mind the notion of monstrosity: monstrous Others pervade culture in part because they have the capacity to embody any number of threats or fears (Kearney 2003; Ng 2004). Harris and Klebold have helped to shape 'the teenage gunman' as a new incarnation of the monstrous Other that can be used in support of various causes and agendas. School massacres have generated discussion regarding such issues as parental responsibility, the role of religion in society, violence in popular culture and mass media, the stretching of school resources, freedom of information, the notion of inherent evil and the role of peer groups in development. In the entertainment and publishing industries, school massacres have been dealt with in song lyrics, films, episodes of television shows, fictional books and non-fiction books ranging from true crime narratives to pedagogic, preventative texts. It is beyond the scope of this paper to tease out the various ideological roles the school massacre is called upon to play in each of these works, but they do reveal the way school massacres and teenage gunmen have become part of the cultural lexicon.

In this paper I will focus on fictional representations of school massacres in young adult books and what they might reveal about the ways in which the genre engages with cultural ideas of the (male) teenager. There are a number of young adult books which have school massacres as their theme but many of them are only in print overseas. I will discuss two young adult books that are currently in print in Australia: Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates and Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, both published in 2002.

There is much debate over the definition of young adult literature. However, certain key elements have been commonly identified. The exploration of contemporary issues or taboos that are relevant to adolescents is one such characteristic (Cart 1996; Donelson and Nilson 1997): it is not surprising, then, that school massacres have been dealt with in young adult books. Another key element of young adult literature agreed upon by many critics is a concern with the process of maturation and the development of identity in adolescence, often expressed in terms of the formation of subjectivity (Donelson and Nilson 1997; Nimon and Foster 1997; McCallum 1999; Trites 2000). Adolescence can be characterised as a liminal space between the more stable categories of 'child' and 'adult' (Donelson and Nilson 1997; Scutter 1999; Coats 2000; Trites 2000). The theme of identity formation in young adult literature thus has a tendency at times to take on a curative or facilitative slant in critical theory. Take this passage from the 1997 edition of Donelson and Nilson's textbook:

  The person who fails [to come of age] grows older without growing
  wiser and faces ostracism, insanity, or profound sorrow . … 

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