Kent State

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Kent State Book Poster Image
Powerful novel-in-verse tells story of university shooting.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The novel's Prelude gives readers a historical context for the story to come. They'll learn that America's involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1964 and ended in 1973. Also, that more than 58,000 Americans died, most of them under the age of 25, and that all young men were required to register for the military draft at age 18, and that when President Nixon expanded the war in March 1970 by bombing Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia, students on college campuses across the country began to protest loudly and boldly. They'll also be very briefly introduced to people (Jerry Rubin and Mario Savio) and organizations (The SDS, the Weathermen, and the Black Panthers) considered radical and dangerous by some Americans and fighters for freedom and justice by others.

Positive Messages

In the Elegy at the end of the novel, the author encourages readers to stand up for what's right, use their talents and energy to make our country a better place, to be good friends, and become champions of justice.

Positive Role Models & Representations

This is a story where it may be easy for readers to take sides. A character who may be a positive role model for one reader will not be for another. But by having the story told from multiple points of view, readers will hopefully be able to understand that characters they might see as villains might also have had fears and doubts about what was happening on the campus.


The details of the shooting on May 4 are graphic, frantic, and often terrifying. Students flee for their lives as bullets fly past them, a wounded student's blood pours out on the asphalt, a bullet lifts a student off the ground and throws him down like a rag doll, brain matter and part of a skull lie on the ground beside a body. Students form protective circles around wounded and dying friends. In the days prior to the shooting, students are tear gassed and bayoneted by Guardsmen. Rocks are thrown at police. Students burn the campus archery hut to prevent other students from taking bows and arrows and attacking the police. Someone sets fire to the campus ROTC building. A Black student tells readers that just days before the events in Kent, the Guard had been called to Ohio State University. Seven students were shot, 400 arrested, and 100 wounded.


A few uses of profanity: "f--king," scared "s--tless," "bulls--t."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character remembers how, at the end of the school year, students would swarm the bars in downtown Kent. A town resident complains that students are using fake IDs to drink in bars.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Deborah Wile's free-verse novel, Kent State, recounts the still controversial events that took place at Kent State University in May 1970. After three days of unrest and protests against the Vietnam War (including the burning of a campus building), the Ohio National Guard had a final and tragic confrontation with student protestors. Opening fire with automatic weapons, Guardsmen killed four students (two of them simply walking to class) and wounded nine more. The novel presents the events from multiple points of view (Kent State students, the Black Students Union, a town resident, and a Guardsman), so readers have an opportunity to decide for themselves whether the Guard needlessly killed innocent students or were defending themselves against an angry mob. The novel's recounting of the shooting on May 4 is graphic and terrifying. Students flee for their lives as the Guardsmen open fire. Blood is seen pouring out on the asphalt, a bullet hits a student with such force that he's lifted up and thrown to the ground, and brain matter and part of a skull lie beside a body. There are a few uses of strong language: "f--king," scared "s--tless," "bulls--t."

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What's the story?

KENT STATE takes place over four days in May 1970. It begins on Friday, May 1, as the school year at Ohio's Kent State University is coming to a close. There's an anti-Vietnam rally on campus that day and then students begin hitting the bars in downtown Kent. The party atmosphere turns into a small riot, the bars are closed, and local police begin tear gassing students as they leave the bars. On Saturday, someone sets the campus ROTC building on fire and the Ohio National Guard is called (with helicopters, bayonets, and guns) to restore order on the campus, which now feels like a war zone. On Sunday, hundreds of students gather demanding that the Guard leave campus. Guardsmen respond by chasing students across campus to their dorms, locking them in. Some students are bayoneted and sent to hospital. Monday's protests bring a final confrontation with the Guard. There's more tear gas and students begin throwing rocks. Then the General commanding the Guard orders them to move away from the students to another part of the campus. The students think they've won, until 28 Guardsmen turn and begin firing. Bill Schroeder is killed as he walks from a meeting with his ROTC advisor. Jeffrey Miller, an anti-war activist since he was 16, had been throwing rocks at the Guard. He dies instantly from a single gunshot. Alison Krause, who hated violence, is dying in her boyfriend's arms. Sandra Scheuer, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, is shot and killed while walking to her speech class. Nine others are shot and wounded.

Is it any good?

This gripping, unforgettable novel unfolds at a sometimes dizzying speed. It multiple voices challenge readers to search for the truth behind a terrible tragedy. Each of the voices recounting how they saw events in KENT STATE appear in a different typeface and a different size. The Guardsman is large type, students in a medium type, and the voice of a town resident in very small type. Once readers figure out who's who, it adds real drama to the story. But for some readers, it may be confusing and take time to put a voice to the right typeface. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how differently the characters in Kent State remember what happened during those four days. Do you believe one person's account more than the others? Or can there be more than one version of the truth?

  • What if students at Kent State had been able to take cellphone videos on Saturday and Sunday and post them on social media? Do you think the tragic events of Monday might have been avoided?

  • Have students at your school ever protested against something they felt was wrong? Do you think it's important for students to speak out?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of activism and novels in verse

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