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'Only Child': A Story of Loss, Grief And Hope

Rhiannon Navin, credit Michael Lionstar
Michael Lionstar
Rhiannon Navin, credit Michael Lionstar

In the wake of tragedy, confusing and conflicting feelings like fear and anger can be overwhelming. In her breakout novel, Rihannon Navin takes readers on the emotional journey that explores some of these feelings.

Only Child centers around a family reconciling with the aftermath of a mass shooting at an elementary school. It's told from the perspective of 6-year-old Zach, who survived the shooting in which his brother Andy died.

The book comes in the midst of an American tragedy; just eight days before it was released, a fatal mass shooting at a high school in Florida claimed the livesof 17 people.

NPR's Michel Martin talked to Navin about Only Child and the feeling she hopes the book leaves reader with: hope.

Interview Highlights

On the inspiration behind the novel

It was a very kind of personal experience that I had a few years ago when my twins, who actually turn 8 today, just started kindergarten.

They were 5 years old and they were sitting on the rug and deciphering their first words and just innocent and happy to be there, and then they experienced their first lockdown drill. A voice came over the loudspeaker and said "lockdown" and their teacher locks the door and turns off the lights and ushers them into a closet or instructs them to hide under a desk.

And that same afternoon I found my little guy, Garret, hiding underneath the dining room table. And I said, "Hey, buddy. What are you doing under the table?" And he said, "I'm hiding from the bad guy mommy." And he cowered there and refused to come out so I got under the table with him and held him and he was petrified and I was petrified for him and with him.

And that led me to wonder what that would feel like or look like from the perspective of such a young child to have to live through an actual shooting and the aftermath and everything that comes afterward.

On the writing process

It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. It was incredibly tough. I had to put myself and my family into that position. I had to envision us in that situation. And that was incredibly draining. But, at the same time it kind of gave me a way to show and to feel how it is to move through this time — without minimizing how hard it is — but come out at the other end feeling a sense of hope and a way to look towards the future.

/ by Rhiannon Navin
by Rhiannon Navin

On creating the characters

I wanted to show an average family. A regular family — like my family — that deals with everyday problems. Being married under the best of circumstances is difficult. Having children under the best of circumstances is difficult. And then you take this average family that deals with all the normal things and toss them into a situation where they have to face the most unspeakable, horrifying tragedy for their family and they're going to act like humans and they are going to make mistakes and their grief is going to make them do thing that they never thought they would do — and they wouldn't want to do, but they're grieving and they're terrified and sometimes they're lashing out.

On what she learned on the journey

I hope that the story that I told and that the perspective that I chose will remind all of us – I know it reminded me – of the emotional depth and wisdom that our children and our young people possess and that they have to share e if we take the time to listen

I hope that even though my book is incredibly hard for some people to read that after my readers grieve with Zach and his family that they feel hope and that they feel energized maybe and driven by this hope and discover that there's a chance that we come together that we can heal together and move forward and create a safer future for our children.

NPR's Digital News intern Asia Simone Burns produced this story for the Web. NPR's Tyler Hill and NPR's Ammad Omar edited and produced this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.