Archive for Bullying

Fan Mail Wednesday #203: In Which Kate Is Late . . . for My Birthday!

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Here comes Fan Mail Wednesday and a letter from Kate, who was late for a very important date.

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I replied:

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your kind and very well-written letter.

Before we get into the meat of your missive, let me assure you that it is never too late to wish me a happy birthday. Or, for that matter, to send an expensive birthday present. In fact, here at jamespreller.com, it is our policy to accept birthday presents up to 120 days after the deadline. If you go beyond that date, not to fear, your gift will be considered a pre-birthday gift in advance of the real one.

Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!

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Okay, back to business:

It’s hard to understand the motivations behind bullying. In general, I view people as basically “good,” and that most school-age bullying is a result of poor choices made for a variety of reasons: insecurity, anger, a desire for popularity, whatever. I don’t like to label anyone as a “bully.” Bullying is a verb, a behavior; not a noun, or a person. I have a gut reaction against labeling in general, putting complex people into little boxes. We play many roles in our daily lives: teammate, daughter, friend, students, baby-sitter, etc. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” For that reason, I don’t like to say that anyone is just a bully, because they are so much more than that, usually simultaneously.

One of the things I discovered in my research was counter-intuitive (which means, btw, “the opposite of what we might expect”). I learned that people who are bullied will often turn around to bully someone else. At first, I thought that was strange. Wouldn’t they know how it felt? Wouldn’t they be the last ones to inflict that same harm on someone else? But it turns out that the “target-bully” is fairly common dynamic. You are bullied here, so over there you turn around and bully someone else. In one area, you don’t have control over the situation — a horrible, helpless feeling — but in the next, you do gain that upper hand. Also, what does anyone do with all that anger and resentment bottled up inside? Where does it go? So the target returns home and picks on the kid down the street. Or the boy who has a rough time at home goes into school and turns the tables on someone else. Life is so complicated, we simply don’t know what others are going through. That’s why I’m reluctant to judge.

I’m glad you seem to have “gotten” the ending. I didn’t attempt to answer every question. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time. What happens next? That’s up to you to think about and debate, if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

10991132_10205999019274119_6618454603022716888_nP.S. It’s really, really cold outside. I just came back from walking my dog — and I was wearing snow shoes!

 

 

School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!

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“It was such a great day for us

that I wish he could go to every single middle school!”

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I received a kind note in the mail yesterday regarding a few school visits I made to Virginia back in October. It included the article below, where my new shirt (that I’m still not sure about) figured prominently.

Of course, I’ve done many school visits over the past 20 years. By the end of most visits, I feel like I’ve become friends with that librarian or PTA organizer — and later, of course, there’s rarely any more contact. Gone but not forgotten. The librarian who sent this note, Chris, made such a huge effort to make this trip happen for me, and for the students in her school. She simply would not be denied. I owe her so much. In the headline I wrote “Thank you, Virginia!” But what I really mean is: Thank you, Chris!

School visits are an important part of my career. They help pay the bills, most certainly. They also get me out into the world, where I meet teachers and students and, hopefully, help make a small difference in every school I visit. It’s an honor and I don’t take the privilege lightly.

Here’s the note:

Jimmy,

Here is the article about your visit to Poquoson Middle School.  It was published in the VAASL Voice, our state librarians’ magazine, and was distributed to about 1300 librarians across the state.

Your author visit has been a real highlight of our school year!

Thanks again,

Chris

And now, the article:

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Tyranny of Silence

When I was working on Bystander (Fall, 2009), a book that centers on bullying, I kept running across different quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. He would often express the same idea in subtle variations. In essence, Dr. King issued an indictment against the tyranny of silence, reminding us all of our responsibility to speak up. King believed in the common good. He had an abiding faith in his fellow man. If only we would all stand up and be heard, then justice and democracy and human kindness would surely prevail over cruelty and prejudice.

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That’s partly why I named the book, Bystander. Not bully. Not victim. I wanted the focus to be on the overwhelming majority of us who stand by as mute witness; and how we are, therefore, complicit in acts of cruelty, our silence a form of tacit agreement. For responsibility is nothing if not an “ability” to “respond.” That’s where we find hope for real change. In our voices.

Here’s a few relevant quotes from Dr. King:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

This brief, one-minute clip is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech. He knew what was coming, he knew.

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Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

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Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits. A kinder and generally more accurate take is that the extra attention, the extra funds, gave the good people in those schools the opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a difference in the lives of these young people. They care. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve met the best of these folks, I’ve spent time with them, and I am awed by the goodness in their hearts — their motivations and intentions. I’m honored to play a small role in their larger mission.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

At the same time, yes, I know there are teachers who roll their eyes, check the clock, and wonder when they can get back to teaching. There’s a curriculum to be covered and, ultimately, tests to be given, results to be measured.

On the whole, not perfect, it’s a multi-faceted issue, and we’re all trying to figure it out. But a good process, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

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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