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Give a Boy a Gun

20th Anniversary Edition

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Todd Strasser’s acclaimed account of school violence that Kirkus Reviews calls “vivid, distressing, and all too real.”

For as long as they can remember, Brendan and Gary have been mercilessly teased and harassed by the jocks who rule Middletown High. But not anymore. Stealing a small arsenal of guns from a neighbor, they take their classmates hostage at a school dance. In the panic of this desperate situation, it soon becomes clear that only one thing matters to Bendan and Gary: revenge.

Introduction

Around 10 P.M. on Friday, February 27, Gary Searle died in the gymnasium at Middletown High School. After the bullet smashed through the left side of his skull and tore into his brain, he probably lived for ten to fifteen seconds.

The brain is a fragile organ suspended in a liquid environment. Not only does a bullet destroy whatever brain tissue is in its path, but the shock waves from the impact severely jar the entire organ, ripping apart millions of delicate structures and connections. In the seconds that follow, the brain swells with blood and other fluids. The parts of the brain that control breathing and heartbeat stop. One doctor described it to me as "an earthquake in the head."

At the moment of Gary's death I was in the library at the state university, where I was a sophomore studying journalism. As soon as I heard the news, I went home to Middletown, determined not to leave until I understood what had happened there.

Returning to Middletown was like stepping into a thick fog of bewilderment, fury, agony, and despair. For weeks I staggered through it, searching out other lost, wandering souls. Some were willing to talk to me. Others spoke because they felt a need to defend themselves even though no one had pointed an accusing finger at them. Some even sought me out because they wanted to talk. As if speaking about it was a way of trying to figure it out, of beginning the long, painful process of grieving and moving ahead.

Some refused to speak because it must have been too painful. For others, I suspect it was because they had learned something about themselves that they were still struggling to accept -- or to conceal.

I spoke to everyone who would speak to me. In addition I studied everything I could find on the many similar incidents that have occurred in other schools around our country in the past thirty years.

The story you are about to read is really two stories. One is about what happened here in Middletown. The other is the broader tale of what is happening all around our country -- in a world of schools and guns and violence that has forever changed the place I once called home. The quotes and facts from other incidents are in a different-style print. What happened in Middletown is in plain print.

This, then, is the story of what I learned. It is told in many voices, in words far more eloquent and raw than any I could have thought of on my own. It is a story of heartbreak and fear and regret. But mostly it is a warning. Violence comes in many forms -- guns, fists, and words of hate and contempt. Unless we change the way we treat others in school and out, there will only be more -- and more horrible -- tragedies.

-- Denise Shipley

Copyright © 2000 by Todd Strasser
A Reading Group Guide to

Give a Boy a Gun

By Todd Strasser

About the Book

Brendan Lawlor and Gary Searle get more and more tired of being bullied by the jocks at their high school. The constant harassment and taunts make Brendan furious and leave Gary feeling like a loser. But what can they do? The principal and teachers ignore the bullying, and the football coach encourages it. So the two boys plan to retaliate—with guns and explosives. You hear this story from multiple voices: friends, fellow students, faculty, family, and neighbors—and in suicide notes from the boys. Tying the tale to acts of violence across the US are footnotes with alarming statistics about guns, mass shootings, bullying, and more. As painfully relevant today as it was twenty years ago, this short novel will make a powerful impact on every reader.

Discussion Questions

1. Describe Gary Searle, his family situation, and his personality, giving details from the narrative. What’s his mother like? What kind of relationship do they have? How does the bullying make him feel?

2. Describe Brendan Lawlor, his family, and his personality, backing up your comments with evidence. How did he feel about his family’s move and changing schools? What’s his reaction to the bullying? How does he change, if at all, during the novel’s time frame?

3. What kind of friendship do Gary and Brendan have? What do they have in common? How are they different from each other? How does the relationship change during the story? Where does Ryan fit into their friendship?

4. Brendan was seriously into violent video games; although, as Ryan points out, “so were a lot of other kids who didn’t do what he did.” On the pages that follow are statistics about violence in the media. Discuss this topic and whether you think fantasizing about revenge, viewing violence on screens, and playing violent games makes it more likely a person will be violent.

5. What role does Allison play in the story? What’s her relationship to Gary and Brendan? Why is she so important during the final scenes at the dance? What happens to her afterward?

6. Some of the voices provide a more objective point of view than others. What do Ryan, Emily, Dustin, and Chelsea contribute to your understanding of what led up to Gary’s and Brendan’s actions? Talk about each of the four observers, including who they are, their relationship to the story, and their role in the final scenes.

7. Describe the high school’s social structure. Which students have more power, and why? Refer to some of Chelsea’s observations about the role of cliques and contrasts to her previous school. Discuss the internet posting about cliques that appears in the book.

8. Find some of the comments about football and its importance at the school. How are football players treated differently than other students? How do teachers justify it? Explain the idea of school spirit and why it’s linked to football. Why are sports so dominant at many high schools? Who makes that decision? What role do sports play at your school?

9. Discuss the comment Gary’s mother makes after the school shooting: “Perhaps if we spent as much time teaching tolerance as we do teaching athletics, my son would be alive today.” Do you agree or disagree with that statement? Explain your answer, giving examples from the book or your own community.

10. What are some ways that Sam and his friends make school miserable for Brendan and Gary? Why do you think they do it? How do they try to justify their behavior, especially near the end of the novel? Look closely at how they describe their cruel actions, such as Sam’s description, “‘I had some scrapes with those guys.’”

11. Ryan speaks about being the target of name-calling, saying, “‘It’s like torture. You know ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me?’ It’s a load of crap. A stick stops hurting after a few minutes. Names last a long time.’” Do you agree with this statement? Why do you think the bullies so often call other boys “faggots”? How safe does school feel for the boys who are targeted? What do you think could be done to create safe spaces and promote inclusion?

12. Discuss Deirdre Bunson’s comment about cliques and their cruelty: “‘People talk like our school is this sick, depraved place. That’s so wrong . . . It must be like this at every other high school. Yes, kids can be really mean to one another, really cruel. But that’s the way it’s always been. I mean, isn’t part of growing up just learning to deal with it?’” What does it tell you about her? Do you think others share this opinion? Explain your answers.

13. Brendan, Gary, and Ryan talk about getting back at the jocks, but also at “every teacher who saw it happen day after day and never did anything more than tell those morons to stop horsing around.” Discuss examples of teachers who ignore or even justify the bullying. Why didn’t they intervene? Are there examples of teachers who try to help? If so, what effect does that have?

14. How does the coach treat the jocks? How does he treat kids like Ryan, Gary, and Brendan? Find examples of the coach’s behavior. Why do you think he acts the way he does? How does the principal talk about the fights and bullying? Why doesn’t he do more to solve the problem? Do you think doing nothing can be just as harmful as the bullying itself?

15. How many details do you get about the setting? How big is the high school? Is it in a city, suburb, or rural area? Can you tell which part of the country it’s in? Do you know when it takes place? Why do you think the author made these choices? How does it affect your reading of the story? Explain your answer.

16. Discuss the format and why the author may have chose it. What is Denise Shipley’s role in framing the story? Why are there so many voices? Why does the story span several years? Why are the suicide notes repeated and expanded in different sections of the book?

17. Talk about the notes at the bottom of the pages that add statistics, additional information, and quotes. What do they add to your understanding of the story? Choose a few examples and connect them to the narrative on that page or surrounding pages.

18. Describe what Brendan and Gary do at the high school dance. What do you think they had planned? What kept them from carrying out all these plans? How do the students and teachers react? Can you understand why the boys did this? Discuss why you think Gary killed himself there.

19. Talk about the brutality of the boys who put Brendan into a coma. How do their actions tie into the rest of the book? Explain how Allison ends up at the dance. What does she do there, and what are the consequences of her actions?

20. Statistics about guns, gun control, school shootings, and related topics appear throughout the novel. Some striking facts compare the US to other countries. Others compare US past and present. Discuss some of the facts that struck you as most important. What changes might make our country less violent? How do we compare to other countries?

Extension Activities

Around the World

The statistics about gun deaths in other countries as compared to the US is striking. Choose a country to research, learning more about their gun control laws and instances of gun violence. Include numbers of people killed, people injured, mass shootings, and so on. Create a large chart for your classroom on which to record the information, with US statistics at the top. Then hold a discussion about the information displayed and the comparisons made. What did you and your classmates learn about other countries’ legislation that could be helpful for the US?

Staying Safe

As a class, brainstorm the many areas of your life that have regulations aimed at keeping people safe. The novel mentions airline safety, for one. Most people are affected by laws on seatbelt use and other car safety. After compiling the list, choose one of the topics to learn more about. Create a poster that shows what you learned, and put it up for other students to see. Discuss what forces prevent more safety regulations for guns in the US.

The Powers of Persuasion

The novel raises questions about controversial issues such as gun violence; gun control; violence in video games, television, and movies; the role of football in schools; bullying, including schools’ roles in preventing it; the responsibility of parents for their children’s actions; and more. Choose one side of a controversial topic and write a persuasive essay that makes cogent arguments for your position.

Researching the Resources

The author provides resources at the end of the book within “Final Thoughts” and in the lists that follow. Choose a resource that most interests you and learn more about it. Share what you find with the rest of the class in a short presentation. Discuss ways that teenagers can prove effective advocates for a cause. What did this book make you think about differently?

Expand the Voices

Because the book has so many voices, the reader learns a limited amount about each secondary character. Take one such character and imagine details in their background and current life that the novel doesn’t supply. Write ten or more journal entries from that character’s point of view that fill in some of these unknown aspects of their lives and thoughts.

Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
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Todd Strasser has written many critically acclaimed novels for adults, teenagers, and children, including the award-winning Can’t Get There from HereGive a Boy a GunBoot CampIf I Grow UpFamous, and How I Created My Perfect Prom Date, which became the Fox feature film Drive Me Crazy. Todd lives in a suburb of New York and speaks frequently at schools. Visit him at ToddStrasser.com.

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