Skip to Main Content

“[H]aunting and harrowing.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Vivid, distressing, and all too real.” —Kirkus Reviews

In this 20th anniversary edition of Todd Strasser’s gut-wrenching and critically acclaimed Give a Boy a Gun, two boys bring guns to school in search of revenge against their classmates.

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 Brendan and Gary: revenge.

This special 20th anniversary edition includes updated backmatter and statistics on school shootings—a topic that is now more relevant than ever.

1. About Gary About Gary
Mrs. Searle and Gary moved into the house next to ours the day before second grade began. So the first time I actually saw him was at the bus stop. He was kind of quiet, but friendly enough. Some of the kids at the bus stop would play soccer in the street in the morning. I was glad when Gary came along, because I wasn’t into that, and with Gary there it gave me something to do. We’d mostly talk about stuff like Magic cards and video games and what we saw on TV.

If you want to know the truth, I think Mrs. Searle was a little overprotective. I guess because she was the only parent. She always wanted to know where Gary was going, and would he be warm enough, and junk like that. Gary would just roll his eyes.

Until Brendan came along, I think I was pretty much Gary’s best friend. The thing about Gary was that mysterious part of him that you never knew. It was like something he kept hidden and private. I can’t explain it, but I could feel it when I was with him. He’d just get quiet and you knew he was a billion miles away. I always thought maybe it was something about his parents getting divorced.

—Ryan Clancy, a friend of both

Gary’s and Brendan’s

Gary Searle was a very sweet little boy with slightly reddish brown hair and big, round eyes. He was polite and quiet and always did what he was told. I do recall that some of the children teased him about his weight. But you know how kids are at that age.

—Ruth Hollington, Gary’s fourth-grade teacher

at Middletown Elementary School

I didn’t move to Middletown until fifth grade, so I didn’t know Gary before that. After we started hanging out, he’d sometimes talk about what it was like when he was younger. About the divorce and how completely nasty it was, and how after it was over, his dad just left and never paid child support or called or anything. That was a huge thorn in Gary’s side. He just couldn’t get over that.

—Allison Findley, Gary’s on-and-off girlfriend

at Middletown High School

It was an ugly divorce. All that yelling and fighting. Arguing over money. Gary was caught in the middle, and sometimes I guess I used him to get what I thought I needed. What we both needed. It’s a terrible thing to put a child through, but I didn’t know what else to do.

—Cynthia Searle, Gary’s mother

Gary was enormously bright. You wouldn’t know it, because he was one of the quiet ones; never raised his hand. I noticed it first in math. He almost always did perfectly on his quizzes, unless he made a careless mistake. But the computer was the real tip-off. I wanted to do a class Web page. Gary volunteered to do it. No matter what the problem, he seemed to know three ways to fix it.

—Stuart McEvoy, Gary’s sixth-grade teacher

at Middletown Middle School

A lot of kids play computer games and junk, but it was different with Gary. The thing about him was he was on [the computer] all the time. I’d call his house and he’d answer with this faraway voice, and I’d know he was online. He’d sound weird because there’d be this split-second delay in his conversation, and those typing sounds. Like he was doing two things at once. Then one day I was over there, looking over his shoulder. He had three instant message screens open and was chatting with someone different in each one. And he was on the phone. That’s when I realized that when I called, he wasn’t doing two things at once. He was doing four.

—Ryan Clancy

I brought [Gary] to a psychologist. I hoped he’d let out a little of what he was feeling. She said he was guarded. I don’t think she ever got close to what was going on in his head. It’s obvious now that none of us did.

—Cynthia Searle

I’ll give you an example of how bright Gary was. After the first month of sixth grade I got a message one day to call his mother at work. I remember the phone call because she seemed reluctant to say exactly what was on her mind, but I finally got the impression that she was wondering why I didn’t give more homework. Apparently, Gary rarely spent more than half an hour a night doing it. The funny thing was half the parents in the class were complaining that I gave the kids too much homework.

—Stuart McEvoy

It’s easy to look back now and dissect the stuff you did for every little clue. Like one summer Gary and I had these magnifying glasses, and we’d burn bugs and caterpillars alive. It was kind of cool to watch them twist and squirm. Is that a clue? Or something a billion other kids do too?

—Ryan Clancy

I still find it difficult to believe he was part of what happened. The guns and holding those poor children hostage in the gym like that. What they did to that football player. That wasn’t the Gary I knew. If you’re looking for answers, don’t look at him. Look at Brendan Lawlor.

—Ruth Hollington

Facts and Quotes

  • In the United States in 2018, guns killed an average of 100 people a day and injured an additional 300.

  • “As parents, teachers, and other adults look for ways to reach out to young people, some see a common thread in the disappointments and isolation students experience when they lose a sense of place, lose a parental figure, or lose a girlfriend.”

    Christian Science Monitor, 5/26/99

  • “The outcasts, obsessed with violent video games and intrigued by German rock music and Nazi culture, also had pastimes as wholesome as baseball; they were part of a tight circle of friends, earned top grades, held jobs and looked forward to life after graduation—factors that no doubt reassured their parents.”

    New York Times, 6/29/99

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.
no credit

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.

More books from this author: Todd Strasser