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October is Anti-Bullying Month

It's a sad statement that we have to have a month devoted to the theme of anti-bullying, but here we are--that month is now, and on the positive side there are some really wonderful books for kids that happen to have an anti-bullying message built in.  Here is a handful of such books, and while each one deals with a different aspect of bullying, the common thread is that none of them are heavy handed.  These are all well-written stories that have a lot of kid appeal. We also have a special kind of Q&A to share below, the result of after these authors getting together to ask each other about bullying.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (ages 8-12) - This is one of the best books I've read in years (and our pick for the best middle grade book of 2012).  I would give it to anyone and everyone who has read it has fallen in love (clearly our readers feel the same--Wonder has over 2,000 five-star customer reviews!).  The main character, Auggie, is the object of a lot of casual comments that really hurt--even if this was not the intention.  It's a book that builds empathy and a great way for kids to see themselves or their schoolmates in the characters.

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig (ages 6-9) - Ludwig is a veteran author in the field of bullying and in Invisible Boy she tackles the issue of social exclusion.  This is a great topic to cover because who among us has not felt left out, or been a party to leaving someone out.  The beauty here is not only will kids see the hurtful side, they also get to see how small acts of kindness by one person (maybe themselves) can make a big difference.

Paperboy by Vince Vawter (ages 10 & up) - Our favorite middle grade book of May, the story of an 11-year-old boy with a vicious stutter who faces ridicule and embarrassment with every spoken interaction.  Add in the setting--1959 Memphis-- and you have a rich opportunity for understanding prejudice of all kids.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt (ages 9-12) - Another one of our Best Books of the Month this year, Goldblatt's book is told from the perspective of a bully, a kid who makes a terrible mistake in order to fit in with his friends.  He does find redemption in the end, and his story is an excellent cautionary tale about peer pressure, tolerance, and following your own conscience.

Wonder160_A PaperBoy160 InvisibleBoy160 Twerp160

The Q&A:

R. J. Palacio: Mark, what was it like writing from the perspective of a bully?

Mark Goldblatt: I’ve never thought of Julian, the narrator of Twerp, as a bully—and, I confess, I don’t think of Twerp as a book primarily about bullying. I think of Julian as a flawed but evolving character, a kid whose conscience is still coalescing into a driving force of his actions. What made Julian’s voice intriguing to me, and what made the novel fun to write, was that he’s on the cusp. He hasn’t grasped the full weight of what’s happened. It’s through the process of writing continuously and reading selectively that that weight begins, slowly but steadily, to bear down on him.

I’m happy if readers find an anti-bullying message in Twerp. It’s a terrible thing Julian has done, and if the book occasions conversations about tolerance and compassion, that’s all to the good. But I think of the main themes of Twerp as the formation of personal conscience, the power of confession (not necessarily in a religious context, but in the Aristotelian sense of catharsis), and the humanizing value of classic literature.

My book was inspired by my childhood growing up in 1960s Queens. Vince, how did you draw on your life for Paperboy?

Vince Vawter: While Paperboy must be categorized as fiction, much of the narrative, especially my struggles with a debilitating stutter, comes straight from my childhood in Memphis. I may not remember what I did last week, but these events that took place more than a half-century ago are burned into my memory like the elliptical logo on a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. 

Trudy, what is it like writing about this topic for younger picture book readers?

Trudy Ludwig: Social exclusion is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about over the years—both as a child and as an adult. It’s a fact of life we’re not all going to be on the “A” list. Some of us will be more popular and have more friends than others. But what concerns me is how hurtful social ostracism can be for young children: not playing with certain kids because someone labels them as having cooties; kids laughing or making fun of others for being weird or different; shy, quiet kids who are ignored and feel isolated. I took all this into account when writing The Invisible Boy.

In order to make my characters in this picture book story realistic and relatable to younger readers, I tapped into my own inner child, giving her the necessary space and time to breathe, think, and feel. Later, when I had the opportunity to see illustrator Patrice Barton’s initial sketches for the story, I was then able to pare down my words even further to make sure my words and her illustrations melded together even more. I learned a lot more about picture book writing with this particular story. The Invisible Boy has taught me to how to express a child’s social angst in very simple, heartfelt ways.

Raquel, I first read Wonder when writing an educator guide about bullying for it. What response have you gotten from the school and family community?

R. J. Palacio: People have been really receptive to the themes of Wonder, especially the “choose kind” campaign. They’ve used the book as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their kids that go above and beyond the content of the book: what kind of person do you want to be, why are some people so mean, what does it take to be good in this world? It’s been a way to broach the subject of bullying without making it into a lecture or a sermon, but about the impact of unkindness, about how one mean thing said or done can do more harm than a person might ever conceive—and conversely, how one act of kindness can grow exponentially. A kind word said to the losing team. An invitation to the new kid to sit at your table. A warm hello when passing in the hallway. These are small acts of kindness that are so easy to do and can have repercussions beyond anything we can imagine when we do them. 


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