“In all the piecing together of what happened at the school, it had never occurred to me to even ask myself why. The answer seemed so obvious – Nick hated those kids. And they hated him back. That’s why. Hate. Punches in the chest. Nicknames. Laughs. Snide comments. Being shoved into the lockers when some idiot with an attitude walked by. They hated him and he hatred them, and somehow it ended up this way, with everyone gone.” – Page 145
Anyone who has gone through the high school years knows that it’s not always easy trying to fit in. Many of us know what’s it was like being picked last in gym class or being teased because we couldn’t afford the “right” clothes. A lot of teens find a way to make it through and come out unscathed. But unfortunately for many other teens, high school is nothing but a painful, gut-wrenching experience; one that can’t end soon enough.
Nick and Valerie are two of those teens. Unpopular and unable to fit in, they’re bullied on a daily basis by fellow students and misunderstood at home by their families. As a way to blow off some steam, they create a hate list – a list of everything and everyone they hate. It’s never meant to be seen by anyone but the two of them and as far as Valerie is concerned, it’s not meant to be taken seriously.
But unbeknownst to her, Nick does take it seriously. So seriously in fact that he opens fire in the school cafeteria, targeting those who are on the list. In the midst of the chaos, Valerie saves the life of Jessica – a girl who they put on “the list” – and is shot in her leg.
As with many of the real-life school shootings we hear about on the news, this one ends much in the same way – with the shooter taking his own life, leaving behind many unanswered questions.
It doesn’t take long before word gets out about the hate list and soon Valerie is looked upon with both disdain and fear by those who think she was partly responsible for what happened. After all, she was Nick’s girl. She helped create the list. And at the start of the shooting Nick is heard saying to her, “Remember our plan? Let’s finish what we started.”
Hate List begins by switching between two moments in time: the day of the shooting in May and the start of the school year in September, when Valerie decides to return to finish out her final year. As the story progresses, it switches between the aftermath of the tragedy, as Valerie is questioned by detectives and forced into therapy, and Val’s final year, as she goes back to school and struggles to make amends while facing her own guilt and coming to terms with everything that has happened.
I hadn’t noticed when the talk increased. Hadn’t noticed when it got personal. Hadn’t realized that Nick’s stories had become tales of suicide. Of homicide. And mine had, too. Only, as far as I knew, we were still telling fiction.
When I thumbed through the e-mails Detective Panzella had given me on his first visit to my room, I was dumbfounded. How could I not have seen it? How could I not have noticed that the e-mails told an alarming story that would have made anyone sit up and take notice? How could I not have seen that Nick’s talk had gone from fiction to fact? How could I not see that my responses – still just fiction in my head – would make me look for all the world like I was obsessed with death, too?
What Hate List does best is give us a character in Valerie that is so believable that most of us can relate to her because at some point in time, we were her. We can relate to her confusion, to her wanting to fit in, and we know what it’s like to find that kindred spirit who accepts us for who we are, even though they may not be good for us.
Her therapy sessions are also realistic, as she explores her reasons for creating the list, her relationship with her family, and whether or not she should have seen this coming. Many of her experiences after-the-fact are painful and heartbreaking, as she faces a Principal who distrusts her (“I’m not going to let you orchestrate another tragedy in this school young lady”), a father who can’t seem to forgive her, and a mother who becomes over-protective, not because she’s afraid of what others may do to her daughter, but because of what Val may do to them (“Are you going to hurt them?” Mom said. “Are you joining up with them so you can finish the job that Nick started?”)
Hate List gives us a glimpse into the lives of those kids in school who we may have excluded or made fun of or bullied, or who we knew were treated that way and we did nothing about it, for fear that we would get treated the same way. But it also shows us the other side; that those who do the excluding or the bullying have a lot more in common with their victims than they may realize. The hurt, the pain, the confusion, the need to fit in and belong – both sides feel the exact same things, but express them in very different ways.
Through Valerie’s journey, we see a young girl who develops from a girl filled with pain and confusion into a girl with a new sense of purpose and determination, as she makes amends with those she hurt and finally learns to accept who she is.
An amazing first book by Jennifer Brown.