Novelist's Book Strikes a Nerve on Issue of School Violence

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult intended to spark debate about the causes of school violence when she gave advance copies of her novel about a mass school shooting to three schools, including one in her hometown of Hanover, N.H., and Newton South High School.

She succeeded.

Officials at Hanover High School, which Picoult's son attends, yanked her book, "Nineteen Minutes," from a mandatory reading list last week, after some students wondered whether it was about their school. Picoult's fictional Sterling High School had an eerie resemblance to Hanover High, with its two-story glass atrium and green roof.

Last month, Newton South considered removing the book from its English classes out of fear the book would rattle students. Part of it was timing: As teachers handed out the books, they learned that a student at nearby Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School had been fatally stabbed by a fellow student in a school bathroom.

"Knowing I hit a nerve convinces me this was the right book to write," Picoult said in an interview. "I don't think this is a conversation you should sweep under the carpet."

"Nineteen Minutes" raises questions about whether a novel about a high school shooting rampage is a wise offering at a school. Picoult's book is slated to hit bookstores March 6. Picoult gave the advance copies to the schools with the caveat that there had to be adult-led discussion.

In "Nineteen Minutes," a student, who was bullied since kindergarten, fatally shoots 10 students in 19 minutes at a well-to-do high school in New Hampshire.

At Hanover High, counselors questioned whether the book was too emotionally powerful for all students, especially in light of the speculation over whether the fictional Sterling High was really their own school, said principal Deborah Gillespie. She said she supports discussion of how to prevent school attacks, but is unsure if a novel is the right tool.

The principal said she fears that some students may be uneasy on March 6, the day of the fictional attack, and wants the day to be like any other at the school.

Some students have continued to read the book and discuss it with a teacher. The student newspaper at Hanover High has carried opinion pieces by students and staff, with some praising the book's removal from the mandatory reading list and others criticizing the decision.

On Monday, Picoult said, she will speak with students in three English classes.

At Newton South High, the English department head, Frances Moyer, said the book provoked conversations among students and teachers about bullying and their feelings about the Lincoln-Sudbury stabbing. The teenager accused in the fatal attack was a newcomer to the school and reportedly had been a target of student ridicule. Picoult recently spoke to Newton South students.

"At first, some even denied that bullying existed in the school, but Jodi, a schoolteacher at heart, was able to draw out more stories from them, helping them to become more self aware," Moyer said in an e-mail response to questions.

At the third high school to receive advance copies, in Gilford, N.H., students asked Picoult how they could break stereotypes of each other when they have been classmates since kindergarten.

Schools across the country are torn about whether literature is a good springboard to discuss school violence, according to national school safety specialists and psychologists.

Some educators and school officials fear that novels could give students ideas about how to execute an attack, while others believe that literature provides a comfortable forum for dealing with difficult issues. Some schools have put on a play about school violence, "Bang, Bang, You're Dead," to spark discussion.

Picoult said she researched her book in part by interviewing those touched by the Columbine school massacre in Colorado in 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher, then shot themselves. She also pored over court and police records.

Her book bears some resemblance to the scenes aired on television of Columbine. "Chaos was a constellation of students, running out of the school and trampling the injured. Chaos was the boy holding a handmade sign in an upstairs window that read HELP US," Picoult wrote.

As a mother of three children - ages 15, 13, and 11 - Picoult said she wanted to enlighten communities where residents can't imagine a mass shooting taking place. She stressed that the book, set in a college town, is not about Hanover, home to Dartmouth College.

Picoult has written 13 other books, including four New York Times best-sellers, and has tackled other social issues, including teen suicide pacts. She starts her national tour for "Nineteen Minutes" on March 6 at Natick's Wilson Middle School; coincidentally, it is the middle school attended by James Alenson, the 15-year-old victim at Lincoln-Sudbury.

"Unfortunately, it's a topic that has hit everyone lately," said Joan Craig, community relations coordinator for Natick's Morse Institute Library, which is sponsoring the event with Borders. "I think the more open students, teachers, parents, and friends are, perhaps it will save something like this happening more often."