Fan Mail #166: Lessons Learned, Messages Sent (and a Complaint about The Berenstain Bears)

Here’s one I had to think about a little bit, then pause, and reconsider, and pause again.

Dear Mr.Preller:

We are 7th graders at _______ Middle School. We have recently read your book Bystander, and have learned some valuable lessons about bullying. We wanted to thank you for enlightening us in this serious topic. This was a great book, and here are the lessons we learned.

The first is not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is how Griffin seemed nice, but then turned out to be the bully. Another is how David seemed to be nice, but then led Eric into a trap. This just proves that you shouldn’t judge people before you know them.

We also learned that everyone is different and that sometimes it is perfectly fine to be different. You have showed us that it’s ok to express ourselves because you are you and that is all anyone could ask for. This is a good book to read if you need advice about bullying or having troubles with bullying. We hope you are writing more books about this serious topic and are inspiring more people to stand up to bullying.

Sincerely,

Chloe and Luke

I replied:

Dear Luke and Chloe:

Thanks for reading Bystander and also for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s interesting when I send a book out into the world — I never know what the world will bounce back. As a writer, I never thought of myself as “teaching lessons” in my books, at least dogmatically, and I’d hate to reduce any novel to just “lessons learned.” At the same time, I would contend that it’s impossible to tell a story without sending a series of signals, values, messages.

I used to hate the Berenstain Bears books. Do you remember those? So popular. Each book set out to teach us something important! It got on my nerves pretty fast. And later on, as I had my own children, I began to intensely dislike how Papa Berenstain was such an unrelenting nit-wit. The big dumb dad, lacking in all thought. Sigh.

So while the stories might have set out to teach a valuable lesson, i.e., “Be nice to grandma!”, the unwritten message was often, “Dad’s kind of a dope. Insensitive, careless, clumsy. You know how fathers are.”

While my book, Bystander, does directly address the dynamic of bullying, what I hope shines through is the importance for readers like you to think for yourselves. To listen to your own heart, the good information that comes from your gut, rather than following the crowd. I never intended to hand a list of easy lessons to readers, and, frankly, I think most readers are loathe to pick up a book to learn “valuable lessons.”

While writing it, I was very much inspired by thrillers. I really wanted to give readers a quick, fast-paced, lively reading experience. A good read! I love literature, I love STORY — I love great television shows and movies, too — because they allow us to intimately visit with human beings we’d likely never encounter in our regular lives. By reading, we see new places, experience different points of view, and walk around in a different pair of shoes. In some books, we’re afforded a glimpse into how a variety of folks might feel at any given time. Rarely is another person 100% right or 100% wrong. It’s not black or white; we mostly come in shades of gray.

Stories help us build empathy, understanding, awareness, and tolerance.

In the end, the book closed, you guys will take away from it what you will. I don’t think there are lessons that you should or shouldn’t learn. Bullying is enormously complex, mostly because people are all so complicated. We are never ONE THING in life. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are loving and tender and careless and cruel — all before we’ve even sat down to munch on our morning bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats!

Thanks for your great letter, and for prodding me into these thoughts. Stand up, speak out, and above all, be kind.

JP

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