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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Atkin, S. Beth, ed. Gunstories: Life-Changing Experiences with Guns; ed. and illus.
with photographs by S. Beth Atkin. Tegen/HarperCollins, 2006 [256p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-052660-2 $17.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-052659-9 $16.99
Reviewed from galleys   R   Gr. 7-12

In an era where youth violence, school shootings, and teen suicide have become relatively commonplace, it is clear that guns are an issue that disproportionately affects young people. This makes the scarcity of youth in the public debate all the more striking—children and teenagers are seldom asked what they think about guns, let alone anything about their personal encounters with them. This stark and eloquent collection of autobiographical narratives, selected, edited, and photo­graphed by S. Beth Atkin, will undoubtedly help fill that gap. Featuring interviews and testimonies from nearly two dozen preteens, teenagers, and adults just past their teens, this collection, filled with gun-related experiences ranging from the traumatic to the empowering, details how, for good or ill, guns have changed the life of the each young person interviewed. Aside from brief introductions to the interviewees, no editorial voice intrudes—the young people speak for themselves.

The mix of voices found in this collection reflects both ends of the spec­trum of American gun culture; the book includes young men and women from a range of ages and ethnicities, from both rural and urban environments. Especially noteworthy, however, is the extent of political stances represented; the narratives are chosen to represent both pro- and anti-gun positions and effectively arranged to signal balance on the issues. Readers are bound to find within the collection someone whose position challenges their previously held notions, whether it be a young NRA member defending gun ownership as a citizen's most treasured right or anti-gun activists working to ban all fi rearms entirely. Interviewees' stories tell of experiences including bonding with a parent while learning to shoot targets, witnessing a shooting, and even being shot oneself, with each interview or testi­monial possessed of three-dimensional complexity. Highlights include a childhood friend of Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, testifying to Eric's essential humanity without condoning his crime; a competitive shooting champion argu­ing for the importance of guns in female self-defense; and a former gang member, who lost both a brother and a friend to gang activity, telling of her past and of her return to her hometown as an adult to attempt to connect with troubled kids. Each interview is illustrated with Atkin's striking black-and-white photographic portraits of the interviewees, and her process for finding interviewees through social workers, teachers, and other adults and criteria for selecting material are explained in an introduction.

This collection is an excellent resource in ways both expected and unex­pected, and it would work well with Harry Mazer's similarly themed short-story collection, Twelve Shots (BCCB 10/97); for those interested in guns and the issues that surround them, it is exceptional, bolstered by an extensive bibliography and lists of organizations to contact for further information. In addition, interspersed pages of factual material cover topics from history of school shootings to statistics on gun suicide to the text of the Second Amendment. The book is more than a resource, though—it's also a page-turning read in its own right, exemplifying the way the voices of young people can be compellingly selected and arranged to ad­dress controversial social issues. Though each piece focuses on a young person's transformative encounter with a gun, the collection raises other issues, such as race and gender, that are certain to get young readers and the adults who care about them talking. In short, it is not simply a collection about the issue of gun control; rather, guns ultimately become a matrix through which a host of other themes—such as violence, empowerment, self-defense, poverty, patriotism, and family—intersect.

Loretta Gaffney, Reviewer 

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Cover image from Gunstories: Life-Changing Experiences with Guns © 2006. Used by permission of Tegan/HarperCollins Children's Books.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2006.