What I Loved:
Obviously a book about school shootings isn’t going to be exactly a fluff read, but, by my standards at least, Brown’s novel isn’t completely depressing either. One thing that helps a lot is the setting. I’ve read at least one novel with a school shooting and I know several more exist, but Hate List focuses on the aftermath, which I think is an excellent authorial decision. As a culture, I think we have a rubbernecking sort of fascination with tragic events, but a tendency not to think about the long-term effects of things. Yes, the school shooting was horrible and sad and all sorts of other bad things, but what happened next is a really important question. All of the people involved have to live with that and how are they going to do that?
The choice of narrator for Hate List is also rather inspired. Val is both victim and possibly perpetrator in the shooting, and, with her as the MC, Brown can weigh the pain of both. For those who don’t know or who need a refresher, Val’s boyfriend of three years, Nick, was the shooter. Though Val didn’t know he was going to do it, she feels responsible, both because the hate list was her idea and because she feels like she should have known. Her mood constantly shifts from guilt, for what she feels she helped cause, to hate, at the way everyone treats her even though she didn’t kill anyone. Her emotions are complex and believable.
What I liked best about Hate List was actually the relationship between Val and Dr. Hieler, her psychiatrist. So often in YA, there’s a subtle or overt mistrust of therapy, and Hate List‘s portrayal is incredibly positive. Dr. Hieler’s great at what he does and very much not a stereotypical therapist. He’s funny, talkative and supportive. He doesn’t push her to talk about the dark stuff and instead serves as a safe, non-judgmental space, which is so much what she needs. Dr. Hieler helps her recover more than anything else and I think that’s wonderful.
Also stellar is the friendship that evolves between Jessica and Val. In most YA novels, the social hierarchy consists of gorgeous, popular bitches who are evil. That’s who Jessica was to Val and Nick, which is why she ended up in the hate list. During the shooting though, Val saves Jessica’s life, taking a bullet herself, and Jessica proves her only friend when Val returns to school. Jessica turns out to be this incredibly kind, thoughtful person. Val’s friendship with Jessica helps Val realize how shallow most of the judgments in the hate list were.
Hate List does a really good job of weighing the subject matter without being preachy or judgmental. The victims aren’t held up as perfect innocents and Nick isn’t shown as the devil incarnate. The overall message is obviously one of friendship and love, but this isn’t done at the expense of reality. For example, I liked the inclusion of Val’s parents’ mistrust of her. They both say some pretty terrible things to her, but they’re also somewhat caring parents. On a side note, I like the positive arc given to her parents’ separation and new relationships.
What Left Me Wanting More:
On the whole, I didn’t emotionally connect with Hate List quite enough to bump this book into the range of absolutely loving it, but I do think it did a nigh perfect job with the subject matter. Also, I teared up a bit during that last scene, so, you know, good job, Ms. Brown.
Jennifer Brown’s Hate List is an excellent contemporary novel that takes a thoughtful and clever look at the powerful subject of school shootings. Hate List is markedly free of the most common YA tropes and is one of those rare YA novels without romance.
The Aftermath of Terror
Valerie and her boyfriend Nick had a Hate List. It was those kids who treated them like crap, who played jokes on them, who bumped them in the hall, who called her Doctor Death because of the way she dressed, who had that Im better than you attitude. It was nothing, though; a way to vent, blow off some steam. Or so Valerie thought until May 2, 2008, when Nick walked into the Commons lunchroom and started shooting people, including Valerie, and ultimately himself. Valerie survived, but Nick didnt. She was in the hospital for a while, in the psychiatric ward for a while and was a suspect in the shooting spree for a while.
Valerie spent the summer recuperating and began her senior year in September. With the help of her therapist, Dr. Hieler, she got herself ready for the day school began. Valerie knew it was going to be tough. Many of the kids blamed her. She was sure many of the teachers felt the same way. Her parents blamed her, especially her father, when they could take time away from their bickering to think about the shooting. Nick understood her, her family situation, her thoughts, her likes and dislikes. Valerie loved him...still does regardless of what he did.
Jennifer Browns debut novel, The Hate List, shows that Ms. Brown has talent. While many novels have tackled the issue of school shootings, it has primarily been from the point of view of the shooter. The Hate List deals with the aftermath of this reign of terror from the point of view of a close friend of the shooter. But the book is so much more than that. It touches on so many issues: the impact on children of parents who dont get along, the fact that adults dont listen to each other, let alone teenagers, the impact of bullying which is denied by school officials. Brown shows how school administrators might put a positive spin on the aftermath of a school shooting, stating that the children have learned love and forgiveness, when indeed, nothing has changed.
Brown as has tackled a difficult subject in a moving and tender way. Nick had no one to talk to about his issues except Valerie, who was powerless and unaware that his feelings ran so deep. Her life after the shooting changed in so many ways. The Hate List is a must read book. I look forward to more works by Ms. Brown.
The human side of school shootings
Reading Jennifer Brown’s books in reverse chronological order (by publication date) has been a unique exercise; it’s interesting to see where an author is today, then go back and see where she came from—what her roots are and how she developed her talent. In reading Hate List now, after Perfect Escape and Bitter End, I can appreciate how strong an author Brown is. Even in her debut novel, her talent shows itself consistently, and the emotional bond the reader forges with Valerie Leftman is intense and heartfelt.
This book is about a school shooting, but, as Jennifer Brown explained in her author’s note, it’s more than that—it’s Valerie’s story. Hate List is about how a woman grows and comes to terms with who she was, who she is now, and who she wants to be. This book is about a school in the aftermath of tragedy, and also a family too broken to pretend everything is okay anymore. Brown’s topics cover an unexpectedly broad range, and they do it with depth as well.
One of the beautiful things about Hate List is the way it causes you to examine and understand all sides of the issue. Valerie was the shooter’s girlfriend and she still loves him; she saved the life of a girl who made fun of her every day for years. Her former friends are convinced that, even if she didn’t pull a trigger, Valerie is still guilty; they’re horrified by what she did, that they didn’t see it coming. Valerie’s mom is out to protect the world from the monster her daughter has become; her dad is furious that his daughter’s problems have ruined his life and wants her locked in a psych ward. Fellow students, family members of victims, Valerie’s psychiatrist—no perspective was left behind. Jennifer Brown covered everyone, and she did in in a way that in no way criminalized or sermonized as to who was right and who was wrong.
And in spite of that, in spite of Valerie’s selfishness, her bad decisions, her past mistakes—in spite of all that, the reader cannot help but be on her side. She is a flawed human being, yes, but she isn’t evil. In my opinion, being inside Valerie’s head was an entirely authentic experience, and though I couldn’t say that I’m “in love” with her as a character, but I respect her and thoroughly enjoyed witnessing her grow and develop.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel has many facets to it, and I’m sure that some aspects will speak more strongly to some readers than to others. For myself, I was most struck by the dynamics and relationships portrayed in Valerie’s family. Jennifer Brown did not give her protagonist perfect parents, nor were they affected with Disappearing Parent Syndrome. They both loved their daughter, but they had baggage and an imperfect understanding of the reality of Valerie’s situation. Her mom worked through it and attempted to do better; her dad threw in the towel and left, saying he could never forgive Valerie for what she did. And Valerie’s brother, Frankie, who genuinely loved his sister, was not a perfect angel. Everyone in the Leftman family struggled, not just Valerie.
But though I loved Hate List quite a bit (or maybe quite a lot), it wasn’t completely flawless. While it was hardly an earth-shattering letdown, I did spot a few realistic fiction clichés I could have done without. And, as is quite usual for me, I had a hard time warming up to Jennifer Brown’s prose, as I don’t find it to be super-engaging.
Those are small potatoes, though. In the long run, Hate List is a fabulous debut novel, a genuine novel about difficult and serious situations, and a glimpse at an issue that is entirely relevant in today’s world. This is the kind of book where you reach the final sentence and sit there, gaping, not entirely able to accept it’s all over, because it’s so good and so touching and so real.
What would you do?
Reader reviewed by sdaugherty
Good book. Another school shooting book but this one is more in depth
of the inside of the survivors. One of which is the girlfriend of the
shooter and what she goes through to get her life back on track. Always
accused (with just cause) of being the catalyst behind the shooting by
sharing a "hate list" with her boyfriend but unaware that he would take
it to the next level. Highly recommend this book for high school
students and parents. We all need to take a little time to see both sides of the coin.