Archive for bullying

And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised – now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #187: A Lovely, Lively One from Ashley in MA

postalletter-150x150 I don’t share every letter, as there can be some repetition. But I quite enjoyed this one from Ashley, who, like me, is also a writer.

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I replied:

Dear Ashley,

It is so nice to hear from a fellow writer – even if, well, you are not exactly a “fellow” at all. I don’t think the “fellow” part is important anyway. But I dither. 

I mean to say:

Thank you for your detailed and wildly entertaining letter. I’m grateful that you enjoyed my book, BYSTANDER, and that you took the time to write to me. I realize from the heading that it was your “Summer Reading Letter,” but you obviously didn’t mail it in, so to speak. It felt genuine to me. And, yes, it was mailed.

(Sorry, weird mood.)

You sound a little like my daughter, Maggie, who is entering 8th grade. She plays soccer and basketball and, like you, is a 100% effort type of person. You can’t go wrong when you give your best. I love that about her. She is also sunny and optimistic, like you, whereas I can get a little gloomy at times, often thinking that it’s about to rain.

I’m glad, too, that you realize the importance of teachers. They come in all sizes and shapes, it’s true, and some are great while others are barely bearable, but when we can make a real connection with one, the entire world can open up in a new way. It’s amazing, really. As an adult, I find that I am more and more grateful to those people from long ago, those teachers and mentors, who gave me so much of themselves. They impacted me, they make a difference. Such a powerful gift – and a great, honorable profession.

9780312547967Of course, I guess there is a message to BYSTANDER, though I sort of hate to see it reduced to that. It’s a story, and I hope for readers to become involved in the characters, to step into their shoes, and see the dynamic from different angles. I want the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. 

Since you asked, many readers have asked if I was planning on a sequel. Short answer: no. Longer answer: I just wrote one! Sort of. Not really. It’s a new book coming out in the Fall of 2015, called THE FALL. In it I take on some of the same themes, but go to a darker place. I’m very excited about it. 

As for your questions, I guess that Mary, to me, is the key character to the story. Yes, she’s a minor character, but with a small and pivotal role. I think she is the book’s most courageous character.

Thanks again for that awesome letter, Ashley. I really like your spirit. 

Btw, you might also like my book, BEFORE YOU GO.

My best . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #186: In Which I Do a Reader’s Homework Assignment on “BYSTANDER”

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Here we go, folks, Fan Mail Wednesday. This one came via the interwebs!

 

9780312547967I am going to be a 7th grader this September. Over this summer, I decided to read Bystander. I have couple of questions.

1. How does Eric’s personality change throughout the story?

2. How would you describe Eric Hayes using metaphor?

It would be helpful if you could reply as soon as possible.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Rika

 

I replied:

 

Wait a minute, this sounds like homework! I hate homework! Or you trying to trick me into doing your homework?

Okay, I’ll play.

To me, Eric’s personality doesn’t make a radical change over the course of the story. I think his awareness changes, his understanding grows, as he observes more things. Remember, he’s new to the school; he has no past with any of those characters. That’s how I think of him in this story, he’s a witness, an observer, almost in a role that’s similar to that of a detective working a mystery. We generally don’t ask how Sam Spade changed in a story, or Philip Marlowe (classic detectives of American Literature, btw). Instead, Eric’s perception deepens, he learns, he grows. For “change,” I’d look to Mary, since I think she’s the real key to the story, even though she is a so-called minor character.

Describe Eric Hayes using metaphor? He’s a camera. Click. A video recorder. A secret listening device. He’s one of those cameras hidden behind the mirror at all the ATM machines. He sees, he records, he absorbs. He is also, as I wrote earlier, “like” a detective.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAs you might know, I wrote the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. 40 books in all. And I’ve actually thought quite a bit about detectives, read a lot of mysteries, and studied up on the genre some. The key to a detective — in the great tradition of the detective novel through the years — is that he (or she!) is the moral compass of the story. The person with a deep sense of justice. The person who sorts out right and wrong in a world gone bad. The reliable narrator. The great detective is the through-line in the story, the voice you can trust in a world of lies and corruption.

Does that help?

Now go out and have a terrific summer!

And hey, Rika — you are welcome!

JP

 

 

 

New Slide for School Visits

Came across this today and thought it would make a good slide for my Middle School presentations. It basically expresses where I come out on all the tips and strategies for so-called “Bully Proofing” a school. It’s why these students don’t need to be preached to. They already know. They just need to be encouraged to listen, and supported when they do.

When my presentation is over — which is decidedly not about bully-proofing a school, it’s about writing books — I like to keep up a final slide while the students filter out. Most of my slides are just images, not words. But at the end, I think that last slide can have words. This one just might make the cut.

Thank you, Shel Silverstein!

Fan Mail Wednesday #173: Sally from South Korea Asks About “BYSTANDER”

Here we go, folks. Since this letter essentially consisted of questions, I broke format and inserted my answers directly beneath each question. For your reading pleasure!

This is South Korean student reading your book, Bystander. I really enjoyed reading your book. Your book is even used in debate topic in S.K’s book debate. I am little confused with some parts. And I hope you answer my questions. Thanks.

1. Why did Hallenback hate Eric so much? Eric wanted to help Hallenback.

I don’t have all the answers on this, and by that I mean that your insights are just as valid as mine. For me, I think you need to go back to the opening scene of the book. Hallenback has just been terrorized. He is covered with ketchup, scared and humiliated. Who does he run into but Eric Hayes.  At that first meeting, Eric witnesses David in his time of shame. Utterly degraded. In Eric’s eyes, David Hallenback would always be that bullied kid, covered in ketchup, and Hallenback instinctively knew it.

Later on we learn that David desperately wanted to belong to Griffin’s group. He would have been a lot better off if that was not the case. David resented how the new kid in school, Eric, could quickly be accepted in Griffin’s group of friends. I think when Eric tried to show sympathy to David in the hallway, David perceived it as pity, that Eric was “feeling sorry” for him. So that angered David, too. Remember, when David is hurt or rejected or humiliated, he feels anger — but he doesn’t want to direct it at Griffin. That anger needs a different outlet. Later when Griffin whispers into David ear, asks a favor, David is only too glad to accept. Finally he’ll have a seat at the table.

2. Why did Hallenback try to be friends with Griff?

Oops, I sort of answered that above. For a variety of reasons, Griffin held a certain appeal for David. Griffin was smart, handsome, popular, all the things David wished he could be.

3. What did Eric help directly to Hallenback? He just advised him that don’t let Griff to treat himself with sneer. He just said he understand Hallenback. What help did Eric give to Hallenback?

Foremost, I think Eric was basically decent to Hallenback. Not friends, but civil, respectful, tolerant, compassionate. One time (chapter 19), Eric even tried to reach out to Hallenback a little bit, advise him against Griffin. It only made David angry. In the end, Eric tries to show David another small kindness by offering him a seat at the lunch table, a show of acceptance, but David rejects the offer. Oh well.

4. When Cody got angry with ‘Weasel’ and fought, why did Eric smile in the end? He even thinks ‘Hallenback found out the way to be in Griff’s group’ Is this mean Eric understand Hallenback betraying him, and kicking him? Is he that kind?

No, he’s not that kind. Though maybe he has a twisted sense of humor. The smile and laugh came when Eric was on the ground, bleeding and beaten, and he understood at that moment why Hallenback had betrayed him in the cemetery. David had gotten his unfortunate wish. The smile also signaled to the reader that Eric would be okay.

5. Is Hallenback changed in the end? If he does, how??

I don’t think he’s changed at all, actually. He’s still the same guy. But we’ve seen changes in the people around him. Eric has gained in understanding. Mary changed a lot; so did Cody. We also saw that the police had their eye on Griffin, who had been stealing from parked cars. The future does not look bright for Griffin Connelly. I think in some ways that is what is different about the book. Usually we see how the “bully” is transformed in some positive way. He turns into a nice guy, realizes the error of his ways, everybody becomes friends, etc. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. My focus was on the bystanders, the vast majority, the place where I thought the most meaningful change could occur. I’ll leave you with a quote by Martin Luther King: The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

I have so many questions on this. I am so curious about these to know. I hope you would answer these. Thanks~

You are very welcome!

JP

The Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

This video is a surprisingly effective means of demonstrating the power of empathy: what it looks like, what it feels like, what it means to connect.

After writing Bystander, visiting schools and speaking with students and educators, trying to think about and understand this whole “bullying thing,” I’ve come to believe that empathy is one of the central keys. It requires the ability to think outside of one’s self, a diffcult task for some middle schoolers.

Literature helps build empathy, for reading is nothing if not standing in someone else’s shoes. I hope that for all the emphasis placed on anti-bullying programs today, that school leaders never underestimate the power and importance of literature to open hearts, to open minds, and make a difference.

Anyway, please check out the video:

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EINSTEIN: The World Is a Dangerous Place . . .

REPOST: Thoughts On Bullying, Bystanders, and Middle Schoolers

Note: This was first posted over at The Nerdy Book Club, a great sight for fans of children’s books. Recommended.

EVERYBODY ELSE IS ALREADY TAKEN

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After I wrote the book BYSTANDER (Macmillan, 2009), I began to receive invitations to speak at middle schools. I was wary at first of being perceived as anybody’s “anti-bullying program.”

I wrote a book. Not a pamphlet, not a list of discussion questions, not a nonfiction guide to bullying. I could not offer a handy list of ten ways to make your school a bully-proof zone. I didn’t even believe in it.

I wrote a story –- that was the tool at my disposal.

Stories are essential to our lives. How could we live without them? We watch television, go to movies, tell tales to our friends and neighbors, conjure dreams at night, play complex video games, read books. Humans are storytelling creatures. We seem to need stories. Something inside us craves stories, we hunger for them, ravenous.

Why is that?

Stories function differently than nonfiction. The characters have a way of worming inside our souls. Robert McKee, in his book, STORY, claims that “Stories are equipment for living.”

Equipment for living.

Our lives race past us, a frantic blur, and we move from the next thing, to the next, to the next, with barely a moment’s reflection.

Stories give us pause. They give our lives form and shape. And time. We turn a page. We consider. We piece together the meaning of our days through the stories we hear.

And we ask of these stories the same question, over and over again: What is a good life? How are we to conduct ourselves here on this earth?

Well-told stories, as Harper Lee so beautifully demonstrated in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, allow us to walk in someone’s else’s shoes. Remember that remarkable scene at the end of the book? When Scout walks Boo Radley home, climbs up to his porch, and for a moment turns and looks at the world from his perspective?

Scout concluded: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

That’s story.

It’s also called empathy, understanding, compassion.

Here’s McKee again: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Story isn’t an escape from reality. It is a light that shines upon the dark corners of our world, the secret places, the hidden fears and hopes and dreams.

It is why books matter, and why, I now know, some teachers have embraced BYSTANDER –- among other novels — as a way to explore this complex topic.

I’ve stood on a stage in auditoriums in front of 500, 600, 700 middle school-age children. Or as they refer to them in Ireland, “young people.” I like that. Young people. So much more intrinsically respectful than kids, little lambs eat ivy.

Despite my experience visiting places like Oklahoma and South Carolina, Illinois and Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, I’m still in the process of learning how to talk about bullying. Still growing into my own shoes. Still learning to speak above a whisper.

One of the central ideas embedded in the book – an idea I came to understand only through the passage of time – also happens to be one that’s incredibly difficult for me to directly convey to middle school students. So I don’t try to tell it, per say, so much as hope it leaks out over everything, like sunlight through the edges of a drawn blind. But I think it’s worth saying to you, here.

Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school. Why is that?

Let’s recall Emerson’s quote from up top, and agree that one of the greatest achievements in life is to become, simply, one’s true self. It sounds easy enough, but as we know, it is not. I’m a father, I have three children, including a 7th-grader and a 9th-grader. I watch their awkwardness and insecurities and struggles.

To be content in your own skin.

To not look to others for your cues.

To accept and trust who you are, to follow your own inner compass.

These are not easy things.

At no time in life is it tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to watch on television, how to act, where to sit, whom to befriend, whom to avoid. This is how we forge identity, hammering out our awareness of self (which is a created thing after all, the “self” we decide to become). At middle school, many of these daily details are powerfully influenced by the pack.

Yet a primary aspect to becoming a true individual is the casting off of those concerns. It’s a challenge for anybody to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s close to impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they see themselves as the group. The group is them, the individual swallowed by the great whale. And we are all Pinocchio, trapped inside the dark belly, fumbling for a light, yearning to become a real boy.

This dynamic is how young people find their place in the world. We watch others to learn about ourselves. We tell stories. We listen. And then when it comes to bullying, the adults in their lives tell these young people to not worry what anybody else thinks.

“Who cares what anyone thinks!”

Well, they care. They care so much.

In my heart, I believe the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. The best definition of responsibility I’ve heard is “the ability to respond,” to act according to the courage of your convictions.

People are good, I absolutely believe that. And the closer people hone into to their true selves, the better and more moral they become.

Be yourself. In doing so, we all become far more likely to allow others the freedom to be their selves.

Shakespeare: “This above all: To thine own self be true!”

Or, if you prefer, Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”

Five Days, 14 Presentations, More than 6,000 Students, and a Cowboy Steak

On Friday the 20th, I traveled to Wolcott, Connecticut, where I spoke to 650 students, grades 6-8, at Tyrrell Middle School. They had all read Bystander as part of their summer reading program and, I’m sure, as part of their school-wide anti-bullying initiative. The feeling in that school was very impressive. Thank you for all your hard work to make this happen, Sara Tedesco. I’ve been wearing the shirt!

Wait. What shirt?

This one:

That’s the design on the back of the long sleeve shirt created and sold (I think) at the school. I was presented with one as a gift.  The design, created by the librarian, Sara Tedesco, was a variation of the Bystander book cover, with a more positive, local spin. Brilliant.

Come to think of it, those students said they read Bystander. But I’ll admit it, some of those kids looked pretty tan. When I see young people under these circumstances, I often apologize, explaining that in all my hopes and wild dreams, I never intended to become somebody’s homework.

On Sunday, I flew from Albany, NY, to Chicago, and then on to Oklahoma City for four full days of visits in the Yukon school district.

Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Garth Brooks was born and raised there.

The main school I visited — it had a big auditorium, so several neighboring schools bused their students to us — was located on Garth Brooks Drive, because of course it was.

My first morning I stopped into a 7-11, still groggy & desperate for caffeine. After I completed the purchase of one cold Starbucks Mocha something, the cashier asked:

“Would you like a sack with that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you like a sack?”

My brain was still fuzzy. The flight had been delayed. I had slept less than four hours. “A sock?”

(Yes, in my pre-caffinated state, I silently wondered if, perhaps, in Oklahoma cashiers offered people socks. Maybe this is what they do here? “Why, yes! I’ll take argyle!”)

(Next comes helpless staring, where wonderment meets bewilderment. At last a light bulb goes on.)

“A sack!” I say. “Like a bag!”

“Yes, sack, bag. I call ‘em sacks.”

At that moment, I knew that I had fully arrived in Oklahoma. The land of sacks, not bags, far from the standard question of, “Paper or plastic?”

Across four days in the Sooner state, I gave thirteen presentations to 5,600 students, grades 2-8. And I can honestly say that they all loved me, every single one of them.

Actually, well, there was one kid . . .

The truth is, everyone treated me wonderfully throughout the visit. Respectfully, kindly. I felt blessed and fortunate. I can’t thank everyone enough, and won’t really try to here (I tried to there, in person).

Wednesday night I made it over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The museum was incredibly moving, artistic and powerfully effective. I was, at times, a blubbering mess, but in a good way.

If you ever get the chance, by all means, yes, get yourself over to the museum — and prepare to feel the power of that experience right down to the soles of your shoes.

Then I walked over to Bricktown and treated myself to a “cowboy steak” at Mantle’s restaurant, just across from the ballpark. It was a peaceful, reflective, delicious meal, and I was happy to be exactly where I was.

Jenah Hamilton was the force of nature who helped make my visit possible.

Thank you, Yukon, OK. It was really terrific for me to gain a first-hand experience of Sooner Pride. To meet all those kids. And try, in my own limited way, to leave each school a slightly better place where together we value reading, thinking, and basic human kindness.

Most especially, thank you Jenah Hamilton, middle school librarian, the force of nature who made my visit possible.

(I owe you, big time.)

Short, Sweet Review of “BYSTANDER” by The Reading Junky

Came across a nice review of Bystander at the Reading Junky, a site written by a woman about to embark on her 36th year of teaching.

They give out Purple Hearts for that, don’t they?

Or just smile stickers?

Here’s the money quote:

Author James Preller deftly handles a current adolescent concern – bullying.  By breaking the stereotype of the rough, tough bully, and revealing a more devious variety, Preller’s story will make readers consider their own role in bullying situations.

For the full review, click here.

Thank you, Reading Junky!