Archive for Bullying

FOR READERS OF “BYSTANDER”: Here’s the Scene That Happens Right *Before* the Book’s First Chapter (excerpt from UPSTANDER)

The book Bystander is one of my most popular and acclaimed (!) titles. Thank you for that. It begins with the perspective of Eric, alone shooting baskets behind the middle school, when he sees a boy shuffling past. He soon realizes that the runner, David Hallenback, is covered in ketchup.

Eric (and the readers) never witness what happened immediately before that moment: David Hallenback somehow splattered with ketchup packets. The ugliness of that scene is left to the imagination.

I decided against including it in the book. It would be cruel and awful and I just didn’t want to start the book that way. Maybe I wasn’t up to the task. It would be disturbing write and read, I think.

And yet, isn’t that what a book is supposed to do — disturb a reader’s universe? Shake ’em up a little bit, set ’em down like snow globes?

Anyway, when I wrote Upstander, I felt the bullying of David Hallenback was an essential scene that readers needed to see for a variety of reasons. This scene comes at the center of a stand-alone story that is also part prequel, part sequel. A turning point. I suspect that readers of Bystander might have wondered about Mary’s role in all this. She was clearly with those boys on bicycles. Riding with the bad guys. How did she get there? What exactly was her role? Why was she with Griffin in the first place (which is explained earlier in Upstander)?

We learn that the scene became a turning point not just in the book, but for Mary, too. So here’s Chapter 20 and a brief snippet of Chapter 21 from Upstander. I’ve also included Chapter 1 from Bystander immediately below that, just to demonstrate the timeline. Note: In Upstander, we replay Chapter 2 from Bystander, but this time from Mary’s point of view. 




Mary didn’t have a clue what was going to happen next, but she didn’t get a good feeling based on the expression on Griffin’s face. He wore a look of disgust. David Hallenback was a stumpy-legged kid who was not the type who’d be pals with Griffin Connelly. Yet when David looked up to see the four bicyclists pedaling his way, he offered up a worshipful greeting. “Griff! Hey!”

Griffin pedaled swiftly toward David, rising on the pedals, as if he was going to ram straight into him before braking hard at the last second. 

David recoiled, then laughed with relief, looking around at the group. “Funny, Griff!” Hallenback looked hot and tired. He was dressed in jeans and his shirt had huge sweat stains along the back and under his armpits. His freckled face was flushed and blotchy.

“What are doing out here, Hallenback? Are you . . . exercising?” Griff asked in a tone of disbelief.

“Yes,” David said, raising his fists in a gesture of pumping weights. “I’m in training!”

Droopy snickered. 

The boys got off their bikes. Mary, too. 

“So, explain it to me,” Griff said. “I don’t understand. You don’t strike me as the exercising type.”

David chuckled, his small dark eyes shimmering. “My Uncle Lewis said he’d give me a fifty dollar gift certificate to any store at the mall if I can run a full mile without stopping.”

Griff whistled, “Wow, no stopping, huh? How’s it going?”

David grinned impishly. Mary thought he was almost cute, in a basset hound puppy kind of way. “Today, I almost made it once around,” he said, not without pride. 

“Once!” Griff barked. “You hear that Mary? One time. What’s a mile? Four times?”

“Four times around,” Cody said. “Yep, yep, yep.”

“Oh,” David said, somehow not aware of that basic fact. He pulled at the front his wet, sticky shirt. 

“I wonder if you are sufficiently motivated to run a full mile,” Griff mused. “What do you guys think? Is Hallenback trying hard enough?”

“No, he is not,” Droopy stated.

David laughed, eagerly looking from face to face, trying to figure out the shift in tone. 

Griff grabbed the bag from Droopy’s hand. He took out a ketchup packet, tore it open with his teeth. “Here’s the new training plan, Hallenback. You start running, right? And if you stop, we squeeze ketchup on you.”

The smile on David’s face slowly faded.

He tried laughing it off.

“I’m not kidding,” Griff said. He patted David on the shoulder. “This is a proven training strategy. We’re here to help. This will work, believe me. And then, ka-ching, you get fifty bucks. Any store in the mall! You’ll be thanking us later.”

“Griff,” Mary said. 

He ignored her.

“You ready, Hallenback? You all limber and everything? Need to do some jumping jacks before you begin?”

“I’m too tired,” David said. “It’s too hot.”

Griffin Connelly reached his hand out over David’s head and squeezed out a splatter of ketchup. It dripped onto David’s hair.

“Whoa!” Droopy roared, laughing. He clapped his hands. 

David stood in shock, wiping a hand through his hair in disbelief. 

“That’s not cool, Griff,” Mary said.

Griff pulled out another ketchup packet, stared directly at Mary as he tore it open with his teeth. “What are you waiting for, David?” Griffin flashed a wolfish smile. “Do you like being a French fry?”

“He’s a French fry, he’s a French fry!” Cody sang, bouncing around in amusement. 

Droopy reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of packets. “My turn next.”

David took one look at Droopy’s thuggish face and started to run. The halting, limping, lumbering stride of a non-athlete. He didn’t stand a chance. Halfway around the first lap, David began to clutch his side, slowed by a cramp. Griffin and the boys followed him on their bikes, cheering him on.

“Come on, David! You can do it, brother!”

“Think of those fifty dollars!”

“Don’t stop, don’t you stop,” Griff warned.

But of course he did. There was no way on Earth David Hallenback could run a full mile in that late August heat. It just wasn’t in him. He stopped, bent over, head down, hands on his knees, gasping.

Droopy splattered a packet on his back. Another one on his shoulders.

“He’s a French fry!” Cody cried, laughing.

David started jogging again.

Mary grabbed Griffin by the arm. “This is gross. What are you doing? You have to stop it.”

“Relax, we’re joking around. It’s funny,” Griff said. His eyes had gone cold. He had switched over to something else, or someone else, darker than Mary had seen before. Droopy watched them argue, amused by it.

“What are you staring at, Droop?” Mary snapped. “Do you always breathe through your mouth?”

Droopy was surprised by her ferocity. Griffin turned to look at him, too, perhaps curious how he’d react to Mary’s challenge. Droopy responded by giving a fierce tug on David’s shirt, ripping it along the side seam. Forced to the brink, David fought back. He pushed against Droopy, catching the larger boy off-balance. The advantage lasted a second, maybe two. Then with an explosive two-handed shove, Droopy sent David hurling to the ground. His head hit with a thud that sounded painful.

“No!” Mary yelled. She stepped between them, standing near the fallen boy. “Stop it, or so help me . . .” She pulsed with raw anger, tensed and ready to launch herself at Droopy’s throat. 

Droopy smirked, unimpressed. “Gee, you’re fun when you’re mad. You wanna wrestle?”

“Okay, fun’s over,” Griff announced with artificial sweetener in voice. He extended a hand, helping David to his feet. The curly-haired boy, covered in ketchup and shame, stood shaken. Griff smiled. “It’s all good now, no worries. Things got a little out of hand. Just kidding around.”

David couldn’t bring himself to look at the others. He nodded his head to indicate that he heard the words, but did not, Mary hoped, necessarily agree with the message. 

“Droop, apologize to Hallenback.”

Droopy stared at Griff for a long moment. “Sorry, Hallenback,” he relented.

“Are you hurt?” Griff asked.

David cautiously probed the bump on the back of the head. Checked his fingers for blood. 

“All right, you can go home now, Hallenback. Practice is over. You got lucky today. Mary here has a soft heart. She’s your guardian angel. But you keep running, Hallenback. Don’t you stop,” Griff said. “We’ll be checking on you. Go on, get going.” 

David glanced sideways at Griff. His face remained tilted down and away, the way a weaker dog might stand before an alpha. He never looked toward Mary or the others. Only Griff. “I will,” he said, scarcely above a whisper, talking to a spot on the ground. “You’ll see. I’ll get better.” And off he went in his uneven, Hallenback-styled shamble. Bizarrely determined to do his best, as if that were the lesson of the day. To try harder. Not that these guys were cruel and to be avoided at all costs. Not that he had a right to be treated with decency and respect. But that he needed to get better –- then his problems might go away. David cut around the school and behind the back. The gang of four –- Griff, Cody, Droopy and Mary –- watched him go.

“What a chimp,” Droopy said.

“You’re an idiot,” Mary replied.

“Speaking of French fries,” Cody said. “I’m hungry.”




Now it was known, the fact laid bare: Mary had witnessed firsthand the cruelty of Griffin Connelly. There was no going back. No thought of friendship or more advanced relationships. All that was over. But Mary couldn’t leave the group this minute, not with Hallenback still out there. If she wasn’t around, things could get uglier.

“Let’s follow him,” Griff said.

“Hold on,” Mary said, stalling for time. She tried to keep the distress out of her voice, didn’t want to sound weak. “Leave him alone. He’s not worth it. We can go swimming or get a slice in town.”

Griff looked at her with scorn. “Are you still here, Mary? I thought you had to go home?”

Droopy snickered. He took pleasure in their hostilities.

Mary swallowed. “I’m still here.” 

Griff eyed her for a long pause, then said, “Because if you want to go, then go. Feel free. Nobody’s stopping you.”

“I know that,” she said, staring right back. 

Mary gripped the handlebars of the bicycle. Her knuckles went white. She hated being in this position. The way Griff took charge of everyone but somehow made it all seem like it was their choice. The way he cheered on Cody to perform that dangerous stunt — just because Griff thought it would be amusing to watch. 

The group pedaled aimlessly on the grass field behind the school. Cody and Droopy chatted and laughed, loose and relaxed; neither Mary nor Griffin spoke a word. There was no sign of Hallenback, but they spotted a boy shooting  baskets by himself on the playground court in the distance. Red shorts and a sleeveless tee. Dribble, dribble, dribble –- like the sound of a steady heartbeat –- then spin, shoot, nothing but net. He was smooth. It made Mary think of Chantel, and a pinprick of regret punctured her heart. Griffin set sail in that direction.

< snip >


Now from the beginning of BYSTANDER . . . 




THE FIRST TIME ERIC HAYES EVER SAW HIM, David Hallenback was running, if you could call it that, running in a halting, choppy-stepped, stumpy-legged shamble, slowing down to look back over his shoulder, stumbling forward, pausing to catch his breath, then lurching forward again.

He was running from, not to, and not running, but fleeing.

Scared witless.

Eric had never seen the boy before. But in this town, a place called Bellport, Long Island, it was true of most kids. Eric didn’t know anybody. He bounced the basketball, flicking it with his fingertips, not looking at the ball, or the rim, or anything else on the vast, empty grounds behind the middle school except for that curly-haired kid who couldn’t run to save his life. Which was too bad, really, because it looked to Eric like he might be doing exactly that—running for his life.

Eric took a halfhearted jumper, missed. No lift in his legs. The ball bounced to the left wing, off the asphalt court and onto the grass, where it rolled and settled, unchased. Eric had been shooting for almost an hour. Working on his game or just killing time, Eric wasn’t sure. He was tired and hot and a little bored or else he would have bounded after the ball like a pup, pounced on it after the first bounce, spun on spindly legs, and fired up a follow-up shot. Instead he let the ball roll to the grass and, hands on his hips, dripping sweat, watched the running boy as he continued across the great lawn in his direction.

He doesn’t see me, Eric thought.

Behind him there was the sprawling Final Rest Pet Cemetery. According to Eric’s mother, it was supposedly the third-largest pet cemetery in the United States. And it’s not like Eric’s mom was making that up just to make Eric feel better about “the big move” from Ohio to Long Island. Because, duh, nobody is going to get all pumped up just because there’s a big cemetery in your new hometown, stuffed with dead cats and dogs and whatever else people want to bury. Were there pet lizards, tucked into little felt-lined coffins? Vietnamese potbellied pigs? Parakeets? People were funny about pets. But burying them in a real cemetery, complete with engraved tombstones? That was a new one on Eric. A little excessive, he thought.

As the boy drew closer, Eric could see that his shirt was torn. Ripped along the side seam, so that it flapped as he ran. And . . . was that blood? There were dark red splotches on the boy’s shirt and jeans (crazy to wear those on a hot August afternoon). Maybe it was just paint. The whole scene didn’t look right, that much was sure. No one seemed to be chasing after the boy. He had come from the far side of the school and now traveled across the back of it. The boy’s eyes kept returning to the corner of the building, now one hundred yards away. Nothing there. No monsters, no goblins, no ghosts, no thing at all.

Eric walked to his basketball, picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and stood watching the boy. He still hadn’t spotted Eric, even though he was headed in Eric’s direction.

At last, Eric spoke up. “You okay?” he asked. Eric’s voice was soft, even gentle, but his words stopped the boy like a cannon shot to the chest. He came to a halt and stared at Eric. The boy’s face was pale, freckled, mushy, with small, deep-set eyes and a fat lower lip that hung like a tire tube. He looked distrustful, a dog that had been hit by too many rolled-up newspapers.

Eric stepped forward, gestured to the boy’s shirt. “Is that blood?”

The boy’s face was blank, unresponsive. He didn’t seem to understand.

“On your shirt,” Eric pointed out.

The boy looked down, and when his eyes again lifted to meet Eric’s, they seemed distant and cheerless. There was a flash of something else there, just a fleeting something in the boy’s eyes: hatred.

Hot, dark hatred.

“No, no. Not. . . bl-blood,” the boy said. There might have been a trace of a stutter in his voice, something in the way he paused over the “bl” consonant blend.

Whatever it was, the red glop was splattered all over the boy’s pants and shirt. Eric could see traces of it in the boy’s hair. Then Eric smelled it, a familiar whiff, and he knew. Ketchup. The boy was covered with ketchup.

Eric took another step. A look of panic filled the boy’s eyes. He tensed, stepped back, swiveled his head to again check the far corner of the building. Then he took off without a word. He moved past Eric, beyond the court, through a gap in the fence, and into the cemetery.

“Hey!” Eric called after him. “I’m not—”

But the ketchup boy was long gone.


Excerpted from Upstander and Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 and @ 2021 by James Preller. Published in 2009 and 2021 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. These works are protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

UPSTANDER Flap Copy, Full Cover

In order to read the actual cover image, you’ll likely need to click on it and fiddle around with it — unless you have bionic eyes. In which case, congratulations, that must be awesome.

I thought my editor, Liz, did a great job with the flap copy:

Mary O’Malley’s only brother, Jonny, is fading away before her eyes, losing a battle to drugs and addiction. Mary’s mother, too, has become absent and distracted. It’s like living in a house of ghosts, and Mary doesn’t know where to turn.

It seems the only person who might understand is Griffen Connolly. Mary had thought Griff was too cool, too popular, for her. But now he wants to hang out with her—and listen. Can she trust him?

Meanwhile at school, things are only getting more complicated. When two girls Mary thought were her friends decide to slam another girl online, Mary tries to look the other way. She needs to call on her inner strength—and the kindness of a new student— to survive a fractured family, bullying in school, and friends who might not be what they seem.

“Sticks and Stones” in Honor of No Name-Calling Week (Yes, It’s a Thing)


This is no name-calling week (and yes, click the link, learn how your school can participate, and you can even buy the pencils!). And in honor of this week’s theme, I’d like to share the second-shortest chapter in my most recent book, Better Off Undead. The shortest, by the way, is only one word; try to beat that.

To set the scene, Adrian, a zombie, is having a hard time adjusting to middle school life. He begins the book as more or less the ultimate outsider, being the only zombie officially registered at Nixon Middle School, where they clearly had never heard of “No Name-Calling Week.” A real shame. Here on pages 47-48, Adrian reflects on some of the names he’s been called . . . 


Let’s list the names:

I am shuffler, ankle-dragger, shape-shifter, howler, freak. I am living dead, soulless corpse, brain-sucker, crawler, spitter, wraith, wuss, dumb butt, flailer, mutant, hant. I am gorgon, raver, basilisk, shambling undead, moaner, groaner, ghoul, death talker, puke machine, shade, half-life, cadaver, wailer, flailer, biter, roamer, feeder, lurcher, loser, infected fleshbag, vermin, oddball, slob, dipstick, drooler, death rattler, human fail. 

I am other, alien, outcast, misfit, and I live in your town. 

I am zombie, and names will never hurt me.

But inside, I’m a flower rising up through a crack in the sidewalk. I’m a hawk riding the upswells of wind, an athlete leaping hurdles, heart pumping, blood pulsing . . . 

Inside, in the places that no one can see, I’m freaking amazing. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #265: After the Skype

Fresh from my Skype visit, I received this kind note from North Carolina, which is an actual state in the United States.
Thanks again for the wonderful Skype session today!  My classes had some great discussions about the responses that you gave to their questions!  It was an incredible experience for them, and me!
I would love to purchase a Bystander poster.  Please let me know if you have such a thing to offer.
I finished The Fall today.  I loved it, too!  I ordered The Bell Jar because I am very curious after you referenced it several times in the text. 
I am attaching a photo from our session today.  Our media specialist may have more, but this is the only one that she sent me.
IMG_1672 (1)
I am looking forward to ordering your latest book!   Also, my students are begging me to read The Fall to them.  I have asked our guidance counselor to read it first to make sure that she thought it would be ok as a read aloud.  It obviously touches on a more sensitive topic than Bystander. It will definitely be made available for checkout to my students either way.
Thanks so much! 

I replied . . .

Dear Susan,

Thank you for this note and the photo. Was I really that dark during the Skype? Or is it just the photo? I wonder if I should focus on proper lighting in the future.
I enjoyed the questions and the experience, thank you for making it happen.
9781250090546.IN01I appreciate your thoughts on The Fall. I understand where suicide is a sensitive issue, and should give any educator pause before sharing the book with a large group. However, The Fall was (loosely) inspired by real events. These terrible things happen. The book is not really “about” the suicide, but goes deeper into the potential implications of cyberbullying, i.e., how we treat each other. Honestly, for me, the deepest theme in the book is forgiveness.
I’m proud of that book and know that many readers, generally grades 7-up, have been enthusiastic about it. The book was nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan and listed in the 2017 ALA midwinter meetings (by YALSA) as a “quick pick” for reluctant readers.
If this is any help, I’ve listed some review comments below.
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.
“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.
“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.
Thank you, I hope our paths cross again.
James Preller
And yes, Dear Readers, there’s even a postscript — because Susan wrote back with this . . .
I agree with everything that you said about The Fall.  Our guidance counselor is halfway through it and says that she absolutely loves it!  We both agree that it does not focus on the actual suicide.  The theme of forgiveness, as well as students realizing what could possibly happen as a result of bullying is very powerful.
My students are begging me to read it, so I feel almost certain that it will happen!
Thanks again for being so approachable!  We met with a parent this morning and all she said her son was talking about last night was the SKYPE with you!  This is such a powerful opportunity for our students, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to make it happen!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #264: Bystander on Long Island



Here we go . . . my 10th year of sharing a small selection of my fan mail on the interwebs. An honor I never take for granted.

Scan 4

Scan 5


I replied . . . 


Dear Samantha,

Thank you for your impressive, typed, two-page letter. It’s nice to hear from a reader on Long Island, my old stomping grounds. I was born in Wantagh, emptied garbage cans at Jones Beach, road my bicycle to the mall, and, yes, even hung out at President Nixon’s dog’s grave near my high school. My mom, age 91 (long, slow clap for that!), lives out in Greenport on the North Fork. Wine country, I guess. So I still find myself out there, though I now live in upstate.

I’ve been to Commack, and not just to drive past (though, yes, I confess: mostly that). I vaguely remember doing a school visit out there at some point. It all tends to blur. So we have that in common, the Island and good bagels.

9780312547967Anyway, I’m glad that Bystander made you reflect a little bit on your own life. I agree with your thoughts about social media, how bullying is actually more subtle, less obvious than what we (typically) see in movies, i.e., the big dumb kid shoving someone into a locker.

I feel there are endless ways of writing about bullying, a million stories to tell. No book can hope to say it all. I sometimes think that Mary was the secret hero of Bystander, though I suspect her story is under-written; it mostly takes place offstage. For better and for worse, I decided to focus primarily on Eric. When a book or movie can get us to think, to make connections, to become aware, that’s a very good thing. That’s art, right? The movie you see and keep wondering about days later. The poem that makes us shut to book and gaze out the window, wondering.

Ultimately, I tried to write a good, fast-paced, involving story. The rest is up to you.

My best,

James Preller