Review of Kent State

Kent State
by Deborah Wiles
Middle School, High School    Scholastic    132 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-338-35628-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-35630-4    $10.99

On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State University during a protest against the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia. Wiles, author of Countdown (rev. 5/10) and other titles in the “documentary novel” Sixties trilogy, recalls the heart-wrenching event in somber free verse. The book’s structure is unusual: disembodied voices, differentiated by typeface, representing disparate campus constituencies as well as the “townies” of Kent, Ohio, engage in a passionate imagined conversation. After a concise prelude that summarizes America’s involvement in Vietnam, two voices welcome the reader, offering to share “what we remember / so it won’t happen again.” They are revealed to be two former Kent State students, and are soon joined by a local couple angry at the “commie hippie pinko” student agitators; members of the National Guard; and others. All bicker and lay blame, but eventually sincerely wish that the murdered students “rest in peace.” Notable among the voices are the weary members of the Black United Students group, who are sadly familiar with white authoritarian violence; and the Guard’s volunteer soldiers, many of whom were just teenagers themselves. The ­format ­effectively captures the pain, confusion, and conflicting perspectives of the time while also making direct connections to current acts of gun violence and governmental overreach. The equally absorbing author’s note, full of fascinating research forays and information about 1960s protest songs, should not be skipped.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine.

Jennifer Hubert Swan
Jennifer Hubert Swan is director of library services and middle school librarian at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City. She is also a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute School of Information, where she teaches youth literature and library programming. She blogs at Reading Rants.

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