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Kent State by Deborah Wiles – Book Review

  • Title: Kent State
  • Author: Deborah Wiles
  • Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
  • Release Date: April 21, 2020

RATING: 4 STARS

Kent State retells the story of the events surrounding the infamous clash between student demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War and the National Guard at Kent State in Ohio. The time period’s complex history still evokes visceral responses from people to this day, and Deborah Wiles’ retelling through verse does the same. Wiles weaves multiple narratives together using conversational and sometimes confrontational voices told from the perspective of participants and observers of the Kent State shootings. Although chaotic at times, the story’s structure reflects the uncertainty around these events in Kent, Ohio. It also reveals the range of deeply held beliefs about the Vietnam War and United States’ culture that contributed to the intense emotions during that period. The skillful blending of myriad perspectives with comprehensive research creates a realistic portrayal of this event. Critically, like the period itself, it also creates dissonance, leaving readers with challenging questions about culture, protest, and ideals still worth considering today.

Kent State reinforces the fact that personal histories offer compelling versions of reality. In fact, the truths they tell are often more resonant. However, they also have their limitations. Whose history gets told? How does this history get told? What motivations underpin the answers to these questions? Wiles does a fantastic job starting the conversation as it pertains to the United States during the Vietnam War Era, but she is unable to sustain it as far as might have been possible. Kent State would be a provocative and important novel to include in a larger study of the Vietnam War, potentially with multiple novels, but it would be difficult to teach on its own due to the background knowledge needed to understand the books’ many facets and contextual references. Nevertheless, Wiles’ work represents a part of the history of the Vietnam War Era that is worth telling and remembering, much like the many voices in the book itself. High school teachers will undoubtedly find value in Kent State’s complexities, especially when pairing it with other works about this fraught time period.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and publisher, Scholastic Inc., for an eARC of this book!

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study on the Vietnam War Era.
  • Book Pairing – Pair the book with another novel about the Vietnam War, such as The Things They Carried, to create a thought-provoking unit that captures multiple perspectives on this global conflict.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • Vietnam War
  • Vietnam Protests
  • America during the Vietnam War
  • All aspects of the Vietnam War Era

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with Kent State. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)
  • Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Plot Structure)
  • Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Nonfiction Connections, Character Connections, Themes)

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