John Woodrow Cox’s Children Under Fire: An American Crisis (Ecco, 2021) is an unflinching look at gun violence in the United States. Cox, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his Washington Post series Children Under Fire presents a detailed account of two elementary school children—Ava from South Carolina and Tyshaun from Washington, D.C.—and explores how they have both been affected by gun violence. Ava was playing during recess when a shooter entered her elementary school and killed her best friend. Tyshaun’s father was gunned down on the streets of D.C. Both events left Ava and Tyshawn with serious emotional scars —PTSD, extreme behavioural upsets, anger, and fear. The violence they experienced also led Ava and Tyshawn to each other. The two became electronic pen pals as they exchanged video chats and text messages. Cox’s careful reporting reveals that each was the only one who could understand the other’s pain. The reason for their isolating pain, as Cox bitingly expresses, is because the United States is “a country that has prioritized giving so many of its citizens unfettered access to lethal weapons over guaranteeing that children are not shot to death in classrooms ten or fifteen or twenty times a year” (206). Yes, the problem is guns; however, it also runs much deeper.
The genius of Cox’s book is that its scope is both narrow and wide. It discusses gun legislation, gun culture, mental health, and the industry that has popped up to deal with the effects of mass shootings. Cox talks to companies that deal in school security and lockdown drill instruction, as well as entrepreneurs that sell gadgets that are supposed to protect kids during shootings. Cox also outlines the lack of research on mass shootings. In addition to these big picture explanations, Children Under Fire also crucially deploys a much narrower scope, telling us the story of Ava and Tyshawn to directly depict the aftereffects of gun violence, something, Cox explains, we are not exposed to often enough:
“If…my years of reporting on gun violence had taught me anything, it was that America had grossly miscalculated the epidemics true scope, and no two children had made that clearer to me than Tyshaun and Ava. We can’t talk about the tens of thousands of men and women killed by guns every year without considering the irrevocable harm done to the tens of thousands of children who are left behind, just as we can’t talk about the dozens of students who have been massacred at their schools in the past two decades without considering the anguish inflicted on the more than 240,000 who were on those campuses when the blood was shed” (205).
Cox asks a crucial question in Children Under Fire: what happens to the children who survive school shootings and gun violence? Ava and Tyshaun’s stories answer that question. Both children’s parents have extreme difficulty obtaining sorely needed mental health care for their children. Ava’s brother must live elsewhere for most of the week because her PTSD-related outbursts scare him. Tyshaun’s grades suffer because he is unable to function in his classroom. The sorrow is very real and has changed both children’s lives. Cox forces us to look at both the cause and effect, oscillating between the story of Tyshaun and Ava and the terrible history of gun violence in the United States. For its varied and detailed approaches, Children Under Fire is a must read.
One of the aspects of gun violence in America that Cox highlights is the startling fact that hardly any governmental research is being done on mass shootings, gun violence, and mass shooters in the United States. Cox explains the complex reasons for this, but stresses over and over that research is the way through and the way out. Children Under Fire was published in March of 2021. In September of 2021, The Violence Project by James Densley and Jillian Peterson was published, a book that does much of the research Cox’s text calls for. I reviewed The Violence Project a few weeks ago and cannot recommend enough that these books be read in tandem with each other. That they are in direct conversation with each other suggests that there is hope for this very American epidemic—even if there are still miles to go.
Please add Children Under Fire to your Goodreads shelf. Visit John Woodrow Cox’s website and follow him on Twitter.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.