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Working through school violence in youth literature

Since Columbine, the number of YA novels about school shootings has risen.
Some caution against books depicting violence; others say it helps kids cope.
February 27, 2018

Visiting author Tom Leveen, ASU Professor James Blasingame address the value of representing real-life trauma in YA fiction

“Gunfire Erupts at a School. Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

The title of Dan Barry’s Feb. 15 New York Times column following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, may seem callous, but its message rings true: Perhaps the most shocking thing about school shootings in America is that they are no longer shocking.

“We grew up post-Columbine. This is normal for us. We’ve never had a time where we didn’t have lockdown drills,” Kyra Sciabica said. The psychology and English undergrad shared her thoughts on the subject at a recent event at Arizona State University's Memorial Union, where local young adult author Tom Leveen appeared to promote the release of his latest young adult fiction novel, “Mercy Rule,” which culminates in a school shooting.

Leveen, who graduated from high school in 1992, remembers a time before Columbine. The timing of his latest book release and the nightmare that unfolded in Parkland just a week earlier were purely coincidental — he began writing “Mercy Rule” three or four years ago — but he can’t say he was surprised.

“When [Columbine] happened, it was a tragedy,” he said Feb. 21. “It rocked our world, but it was an isolated thing. And now it’s not.” The Parkland shooting “was just statistically likely at this point. And that’s the hell of it. That’s the maddening thing.”

Before Leveen spoke last week, Sciabica and other students in Professor James Blasingame’s English 471: Literature for Young Adults course gathered in small groups to discuss their assigned reading, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini in which the 16-year-old main character is hospitalized for depression.

It’s one of hundreds of examples of young adult literature that deals with real-world issues faced by teens every day, Blasingame said. Another is the book “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, which deals with rape.

It wasn’t until after Columbine, though, that we really saw a rise in books involving school shootings. Since then, we’ve seen “Give a Boy a Gun” by Todd Strasser, “Whale Talk” by Chris Crutcher and “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, just to name a few.

And if you ask Blasingame, “a well-written young adult novel can save a life.” He has interviewed scores of authors who have told him time and again how often they receive letters and emails from students who tell them their book changed their life for the better because it validated their personal experience and made them feel less alone.

Still, some approach with caution the proliferation of books that depict violence as commonplace.

“While reading about a character successfully coping with such an event could promote well-being, particularly if this is accompanied with a conversation with a caring adult, there is also concern that it may unnecessarily create fear,” said Sarah Lindstrom Johnson, an assistant professor in ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Some research seems to suggest that the value of books like “Mercy Rule” is their ability to teach kids about warning signs, what could lead to violence in schools and how to prevent it.

In a 2009 study out of Iowa State University, researcher Jill Hathaway found that when students read books about teen violence, particularly school shootings, they had a higher level of cognizance of what caused the violent behavior.

According to Blasingame, bullying is a big cause, but so are unhealthy relationships, whether romantic, platonic or familial. That all hearkens back to what Leveen had in mind when he was writing “Mercy Rule.”

A lot of the things that happen in the book are stories he heard from real students at schools he has visited. The thread that seemed to tie all their experiences together was the theme of dismissal, whether they were dismissed by peers in the form of bullying or by friends and family who didn’t take the time to sit and really listen to their problems and concerns.

“I used those stories because I wanted to draw characters that we could all relate to and that would surprise us, and make us think differently and realize that we need to listen and have conversations,” Leveen said.

“That’s what’s missing, I think, not only [in our everyday lives] but also on a larger scale. … We’re venturing into another discussion about gun control, and that’s great. But do we know how to talk about this? Or have we completely abandoned any sense of procedure, any sense of meeting someone in the middle and actually working on some kind of solution, or are we just completely blocking each other out?

“So I hope this book will make people be more considerate about how they engage with people in the future.”

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Protecting the past with eye on the future

February 27, 2018

ASU professor champions branch of archaeology called cultural resource management in new book

“A society is defined not only by what it creates, but what it refuses to destroy,” environmentalist John Sawhill said.

More and more, Americans care about remnants of the past among us, whether it’s a slave burial ground in Manhattan, a historic neighborhood in Phoenix or a Civil War battlefield. Nothing ignites a historical-preservation fervor like an encroaching Walmart.

That recognition has been helped by a branch of archaeology called cultural resource management, and Arizona State University Research Professor Francis P. McManamon recently edited and published a book on the field. He is the executive director of the Center for Digital Antiquity, a center in the School for Human Evolution and Social Change, devoted to improving the access to archaeological data and documents and ensuring their long-term preservation and availability for current and future uses.

"New Perspectives in Cultural Resource Management" describes the historic developments, current challenges and future opportunities in contemporary cultural resource management. Chapter authors are leaders in the field, who have conducted thousands of investigations and managed programs at local, state, tribal and national levels.

“Cultural resources” is a very loosely defined term. Shipwrecks, graveyards, cliff dwellings, historic mansions, neighborhoods and battlefields all fall under the umbrella. A place where prehistoric men knapped flint tools and Beale Street in Memphis are both cultural resources.

Unlike national parks, cultural resources usually involve people. “It’s quite broad,” said McManamon, who defined his field as “a set of activities that are focused on the identification, evaluation and treatment of cultural resources.”

Americans today look at history with quite a different perspective from the days when historical significance meant a sign that said, “George Washington slept here."

Frank Pierce McManamon

Frank P. McManamon

Haymarket Square in Boston was historically a community market and still hosts farmers markets. When the area was rehabbed, developers embedded bronze images of what would have been found on the ground in days gone by, like banana peels or crate pieces. McManamon, formerly chief archeologist of the National Park Service and departmental consulting archeologist for the Department of the Interior, commuted to work through the square when he lived in Boston.

“As you walked along the area … you got the sense you were walking through some sort of market” just by looking at the bronzes, he said.

Respecting and honoring a site's history is key to many modern renovation projects, such as the update of the ASU Gammage (shown above) on ASU's Tempe campus in 2017, where architects looking to elevate the building's functionality paid close attention to preserving its architectural significance.

It’s also not unusual now for developers to leave an ancient wall exposed, or outlined in brick, or highlighted in bronze. Monti’s Casa Vieja in Tempe, the oldest building in the Valley, left part of the original adobe wall exposed behind a sheet of plexiglass.

“As part of public planning, how do those resources get taken into account?” McManamon said. “If you’re developing roadways or planned communities or water-treatment plants or things like that, you don’t inadvertently destroy an important resource. If you know there are some resources that are particularly valuable, you might actually as a matter of public planning or public funding make a park out of it or build it in as you’re planning as a public resource.”

In the 1950s, concern about archaeological sites being destroyed by modern development began to rise. The Interstate Highway System and the Bureau of Reclamation’s enormous water-control systems, like the dams along the Columbia, Colorado and Missouri Rivers, threatened archaeological and historical sites.

“People recognized that those construction projects were destroying archaeological sites,” McManamon said. “Pretty early on during those development programs, at least for the water control, archaeological investigations to discover sites and excavate them before they were inundated was underway. But some of the archaeologists involved came to realize this wasn’t the best kind of archaeology being done.”

They would survey the best sites, then return to excavate them. It was called salvage archaeology. However, there wasn’t enough time for analysis or even description. The idea developed to find out where the most important resources were as part of the planning of the projects, instead of during construction.

“As the planners or architects developed … the system, the archaeologists could be in discussions with them,” McManamon said. “ ‘Maybe if we just moved this highway a little bit over here, we can keep that site and we don’t have to excavate it. It doesn’t get destroyed by the highway and we know where it is and we can take care of it.’ That’s the difference between the cultural resource management approach and what came to be called rescue archaeology or salvage archaeology.”

Flash-forward to 40 years later. What’s the future of the field?

“Our current administration wants less regulation,” McManamon said. “It wants less emphasis on complying with guidelines about various kinds of environmental work, including, I’m sure if they thought about it, the archaeological attention.”

McManamon hopes the systems and networks that have developed through cultural resource management — including state historic preservation offices — continue the work, which is also embedded in laws and regulations.

“Hopefully that process will continue,” he said. “One of the things that’s changed is that there’s a lot more public interest and involvement than there used to be.”

Where most objections used to be voiced by historians and archaeologists, public participation has changed and public meetings are mandated. It’s a system that tends to feed itself; as more people are exposed to the past, more people become interested in it.

McManamon rides to campus along the Crosscut Canal on a bicycle most days, and he rarely fails to reflect on the fact that the canal has prehistoric origins.

“Hopefully more people think that way these days. They become more aware of their environment. … There’s a reflectiveness that looking at your modern environment in those terms causes you to do," he said. "Giving people that information and informing them helps us in our contemporary lives reflect on what we’re doing, what’s important to save, what’s important to know about. Archaeology can be a tool for saving things and for learning about the ancient past.”

McManamon’s book can be found here.

Top photo: ASU Gammage, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, unveiled a $9 million renovation in 2017. Much care was made to preserve the cultural landmark while updating it to modern standards. Photo by ASU

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now