The number one question I get asked in presentations and school visits is why did I choose to write about bullying. The truth is, I never set out to talk about it; what I wanted to do was write a contemporary friendship story that kids could relate to. Unfortunately, one of the things that everyone can relate to is bullying. As the story developed, the bullying element escalated and refused to be ignored. I’m sure this is due in part to my own strong feelings on the subject, in addition to my experiences and those of my friends and kids that I have known. Whether they have been the bully, bullied, or bystander, the fact is that all kids will be touched by bullying.
Recently, The School Library Journal, my go-to Kids Lit Bible, came out with this article about bullying, in which bullying is identified as the number one fear parents have regarding their children’s lives. We all know bullying is bad, we’re warned about it and in many cases taught how to deal with it, and yet we are caught off guard when it occurs. How we react is unpredictable, much like how one can never know how one will react in the midst of an earthquake or similar crisis. We’d like to think we’d walk away, stand up for the little guy, and do what’s right. The truth is, it’s never that simple.
Recently, many people have been pointing a finger at technology, claiming it makes bullying and social exclusion simpler, more anonymous, and seemingly without consequences. I don’t believe the internet has created more victims or is solely responsible for a culture of cruelty; the internet is just one more arena for bullying to occur. Bullying has always existed and will probably always continue to exist regardless of access to Facebook or Twitter. There may be many instances of online bullying, but there are just as many sources of support online via websites and blogs such as Bullying.org, Bulling Canada and KidsHelpPhone (now with an online component) among many others.
Given the recent media storm about bullying leading to death, particularly in cases of children who idententify as gay or lesbian, there is no better time to talk about this universal fear. Initiatives like Dan Savage’s wonderful It Gets Better Project are taking the online community by storm, and the message is one that all kids can take to heart, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Many of these programs and initiatives are aimed at teens; I think we are missing the mark. Often it’s in middle school that bullying begins to escalate. It’s when kids feel the most pressure to fit in, which can lead to bystander syndrome, if not active bullying itself. Not surprisingly, bullying turns up in a lot of children’s fiction. Here are some well written, thought-provoking middle grade titles that contain an element of bullying:
Blubber (by personal hero and Kids Lit Icon Judy Blume)
Crash as well as Stargirl (from the prolific Jerry Spinelli)
Words of Stone (by the inimitable Kevin Henkes)
The Lottery (by Canadian Beth Goobie)
Word Nerd (by my fave Susin Nielsen)
Stitches (an important and award winning novel by Glen Huser)
The Truth About Truman School (with direct online bullying references by Dori Hillestad Butler)
I am wary of describing Words That Start With B as a book ‘about’ bullying. It is about friendship and dealing with the curve balls life will inevitably throw at you. As a writer, I don’t like the idea of a “central theme.” Life doesn’t have a central theme, why should a book? A great book has all sorts of themes baked into it that compliment each other and hopefully leave readers feeling enriched and satisfied. All this being said, there is some capital B bullying in B Words. I don’t believe in ignoring the issue, and sugar-coating the topic would be disrespectful of my audience, for whom bullying is an every day part of their lives.
One of the beautiful things about writing for a young audience is that I have the opportunity to show readers that they are not alone. Books provide a safe distance for kids to connect to or relate with characters and situations emotionally. Questions like, “Am I weird? Am I the only one? Will things get better?” can be explored, if not always answered, via fiction. Kids get angry, lash out, pick on each other, feel regret, and hopefully, learn from all these experiences and grow into thoughtful, confident and adjusted adults. If reading my book helps even one person through a dark time or makes them feel like they are not alone, then my work here is done.
If you have other great MG books you’d like to add to my modest list (there are many fantastic titles I have forgotten to mention), please leave them in the comments. And for those gentle readers out there who are struggling with bullying, I urge you to tell someone and remember the words of a very wise man: it gets better.