Tag Archive for best bullying books for middle school readers

Fan Mail Wednesday #125 (further thoughts on bullying)

As part of a late summer assignment, I received a terrific letter from Zander in Brooklyn, including his answer to the question, “What will happen to the characters in Bystander after the story?

Here’s an excerpt from that letter . . .

Thanks so much for answering my questions. I really loved your book! I did a little writing about what I thought might happen to some of the characters in the future. I was wondering if you have ever thought about this? Do you think Griffin will continue to be a bully? What about the other characters? I also have to ask the obvious question — were you a bully or where you bullied in school? If not, why did you want to write this book? I’m really looking forward to your answers.

Zander

What I think will happen to the characters after the story:

I think Griffin will still be the bully, but he will be a lone bully with no clique by his side. About twenty pages before the book ended, Griffin’s gang separated from him; they were fed up with Griffin and his ways and felt bad for the people they hurt and picked on. Griffin may form a new clique, but I think the same thing will happen that happened to the original click, they will get fed up with Griffin’s ways. Eventually, Griffin will probably find out that this whole bully thing isn’t working out for him and turn over a new leaf, but I’m not so sure about that either; it’s not exactly Griffin’s way. The other problem is the relationship between Griffin and Griffin’s father. If the way Griffin’s father acts changes, Griffin will change with him. You see, Griffin mimics his father’s actions, and if those actions change, I have a good feeling that a new Griffin will be born. If they would go into therapy, this could be achieved. But since that didn’t happen in the story, it’s unlikely that it will happen now. Thus having Griffin stay the same.

I also think that Mary and Eric will still hang out a lot, they might be considered boyfriend and girlfriend, but I’m not sure. I also think that Griffin’s original clique will turn into Eric’s clique, or Griffin’s original clique will accept Eric as a member; either way, Mary will no longer be Eric’s only friend. Before I finished the story, I thought to myself that it would not be a “…and they all lived happily ever after” ending, and I was right. If the story continued on, I still think this would be true, but it would be a cheerier ending than it is now.

Part of my reply . . .

Hey Zander,

Thanks for reading my book. I like the angle you took on it, thinking about what might happen to the characters after the story is finished and the final pages read.

No, I was not a “bully” in school. But to be honest, that’s a big label and not something I like to stick on anybody. It’s not often accurate to tag people with easy labels. I believe there are bully behaviors, there are times when some of us might act in unkind ways, but that’s rarely ever the sum of the whole person. A so-called bully might also be a loyal friend, a good teammate, a loving pet owner, an adventurer, a son, a comic, a student, an athlete, and, yes, even victim. Research shows there’s often a duality. Someone engaged in bullying might be a victim of it in another part of his life (Griffin), while a target of bullying will frequently turn around to bully someone else (David). It’s a common dynamic. The bully part is just one aspect of character, something he sometimes does, not the whole person. And in that way, I think we all have a bit of a bully, and victim, inside us. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large; I contain multitudes.”

I’m not saying that bullying isn’t real. That there isn’t genuine hurt and, sometimes, devastating loss. We’ve all heard those tragic stories and I don’t diminish that pain for a second. But I think with that label we tend to turn every “bully” into a monster, and I suspect it’s subtler than that. Often the bully — or more accurately, the person engaged in bully behavior — is misguided, unknowing, doesn’t empathize fully, doesn’t really understand the effects of his behavior. I’m not ready to throw all bullies into the dungeon and throw away the key. I think most of us are good, decent people capable of making mistakes, poor decisions.

My primary reason for writing Bystander is that I wanted to tell a good story. I write realistic fiction, and I try very hard to be true to that word, “realistic.” I want my characters and situations to feel authentic, relatable. I want readers to identify with the story, to maybe see themselves, or someone they might know. Robert McKee, in his book Story, makes a strong case for the importance of “story” in our lives. We are surrounded by stories, and seem to hunger for them: movies, television, talk on park benches, at dinner tables, around fires, on stages and in books. McKee calls stories our “equipment for living,” and makes the bold claim: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.”

Wow. What do you think of that, Zander? Story is the fiction writer’s craft, a finer tool than a how-to book, or a nonfiction guide to a problem. Story doesn’t provide answers so much as it, hopefully, clarifies some of the questions. Not facts, but truths. And always the most important question is this: How to walk this earth? What kind of person are you going to be?

Well-told stories, as Harper Lee so beautifully demonstrated in To Kill A Mockingbird, allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes. If you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to check it out. There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the book (and movie), when Scout walks Boo Radley home, climbs up the steps to his porch, and for a moment turns and looks at the world from his perspective.

That’s story.

It’s also called empathy, understanding, compassion. McKee’s “equipment for living.”

I first landed on the theme of bullying through conversations with my editor. I did research, read books, talked to experts, visited middle schools, and I gradually began to formulate the character of Griffin Connelly. The story grew out of that, until I became convinced that the focus had to be on the bystander, the silent observer.

From the beginning, I felt that Griffin was a boy on the wrong path. Obviously there are issues at home with his father. The mother is gone somewhere, his sisters have moved away, too. We know that Griffin has been stealing, and we know that the police suspect his involvement. Unless there’s some kind of dramatic change, I don’t see things ending well for Griffin Connelly.

I thought your analysis of the characters was insightful. I agreed with all of it. No, I did not write a happily-ever-after ending. But I’ve never been a guy who needs those kinds of endings in movies or books. I bristle when everything is all tied up in a tidy bow at the end.

To me, that’s not life. That’s not realistic. Real life is messier than that, and not so simple, and I wanted my book to reflect that.

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my book.

JP

One Book, One School: Some Photos & Reflections

I love this photo, somehow it says everything. This is why you write for children, those faces up there.

A while back I posted about how Bystander was being featured in some special “One Book, One School” reading programs. Lately I’ve been getting more requests in that area, and all I can say is that I love the idea of a shared reading experience that cuts across, and unifies, an entire school. It’s a tremendous honor when the educational leaders of a school select my book for that purpose. Stunning, amazing.

I was recently sent some photos by Joan Scott, the Library Media Specialist at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, MA. Here’s a few more:

For this particular visit, I was able to enjoy lunch with a select group of students. It’s just so much fun to sit down with these kids and really talk together — and for me, to hear them speak, and watch them fiddle with their Oreos, and listen as they share their thoughts and more than a few laughs.

I’m sorry that I can’t recall the name of this particular teacher, but it’s a great opportunity for me whenever I get the chance to sit down with real teachers in the trenches and learn from their perspective.

I’ve said it before. Just as in every other aspect of life, what a school puts into an author visit has a direct correlation to what the students get out of it. At Ephraim, the students were focused, prepared, and engaged — and that’s the key to a successful author visit, and a tribute to everyone at the school.

Here I am with the school principal Stephen Lambert and Joan Scott, who spearheaded the event. On some visits, I never meet the principal, as they are busy people with demanding jobs. Other times, I’ll meet one whose presence, whose attention and personal commitment, sends a powerful message to every student. This topic is important to us, we place value on this moment, and we care about you. Throughout the day, I chatted with this Principal Lambert and I can’t begin to express how impressed I was. Our conversations were wide and thought-provoking. Conclusion: This is a good man attempting to do the absolute best for the students and fellow educators in his school.

Honestly: Is this a remedy for bullying? Do events like this help? No one can say for sure. It can’t be measured. But I do believe that open honest dialogue, back and forth, feels like a crucial step in the right direction. Change can’t happen in a day. And a single book isn’t going to amount to much. But when an entire school comes together like this, the message is loud and clear:

We are a community of learners, we value things like respect and tolerance and compassion, because we understand that learning can’t begin without those qualities firmly in place.

In an interview earlier this year, I was asked: Is there anything that readers of [Bystander] can take from this story in order to better deal with bullies? I replied:

There are no easy answers. Quick story: My oldest son is sixteen. I often worried when he didn’t talk about his feelings. He’d clam up. Then I realized, he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to even know what he’s feeling. To paraphrase Ron Burgandy in “Anchorman,” he was trapped inside a glass booth of emotion. Language is important, it’s a tool to help us perceive things, name things, understand. It’s common for kids to say something like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was bullying; I was just making fun of her shoes.” Like any good book, hopefully Bystander enriches the way readers understand their world.

I’m grateful I was able to spend a day at Ephraim Curtis Middle School, and inspired by their effort to address the issue with open, ongoing, thoughtful communication. Everybody pulling on the same oar. My thanks to everyone who helped make it possible. For those who may be curious, please know that Bystander will be published in paperback in Fall, 2011.

“One Book, One School”

I don’t know where to begin, what to say.

Let’s start with a couple of photos that were recently sent me from Hastings Middle School in Fairhaven, MA.

On Thursday, 9/16, all the students, staff and faculty at Hastings participated in a “One Book, One School” Event. This past summer all students read the same book, Bystander. Of all the books in the world, they selected mine. Amazing. The books were purchased with generous donations from individuals and community organizations. The half-day culminated in book discussions, art projects, role-playing, and more — all tied into my book. The goal of this event was to bring the topic of bullying into the classroom and have the entire school participate in the process. Students were asked to take a pledge: Take a Stand! Don’t be a Bystander, Be a Hero!”

One of the day’s organizers, Ann Richard, sent along this follow-up note:

Mr. Preller,

We all loved the book and had a great time with the discussion.  We sent this press release out after the event with some great photos. I have included them for you to see.

The students created wonderful posters and really seemed to get a lot out of the day.  We used the discussion questions from your publisher as a starting point and created some vocabulary lists and other activities to round out the day.  Each classroom had one poster that they all signed to pledge to not be bystanders, and the entire faculty and staff signed an entire bulletin board to pledge as well.  We also all received a sticker that said, “Don’t be a bystander, be a hero.”

Other area schools are considered using the books in their curriculum this year because we were so successful with it.

Thanks again for such a great book!

And now I return to the same place where I began this post, a little tongue-tied, not knowing where to begin, or what to say, except . . . thanks. I’m honored and grateful.

And, yes, encouraged.

—–

Tomorrow night I head off to visit a school for another “One Book, One School” event, this one at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, MA. So after dinner I powered up the iPod, sat down with my Sharpie and a glass of water, and signed 650 book plates. I’ve always had a lousy signature, and still maintain that nothing beats a handshake, but I feel blessed each time somebody asks.

“Bystander” Reviewed, Sort of, by Author Andrew Smith

Author Andrew Smith, in addition to writing YA novels and teaching in a high school, writes a lively, informative, open-hearted blog. He’s nothing if not tireless. Though we’ve never met, Andrew and I seem to share a lot in common. We publish with Feiwel and Friends, have more than half-a-dozen brothers between us, blog regularly, love music — and we both share the (fading) dream of one day becoming catwalk models for Dolce & Gabbana.

Andrew’s debut book, Ghost Medicine, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was listed as an ALA Best Books for Young Adults. But that’s nothing. VOYA said, “This book is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age tale destined to be held aloft alongside other classics of young adult literature. The story flows like stark, lovely poetry shared by best friends around a mountainside campfire.”

Great review. My only quibble is that whenever I’ve sat around a mountainside campfire with friends — which I did a few nights ago, in Vermont — the only things we shared that “flowed” came in cans, and it sure wasn’t “stark, lovely poetry.” (I must be hanging out with the wrong class of campers.)

His upcoming book is titled In the Path of Falling Objects (September, 2009). Man, I love that title. There it is, already a suggestion of menace, of trouble coming, violence. Yet at the same time, flat, even-handed, clear. Just a sign on the side of the road. First paragraph:

The only shade there is blackens a rectangle in the dirt beneath the overhang of the seller’s open stall. The girl stands there, behind a row of hanging wooden skeletons that dangle from the eaves.

Nice, right? The specificity and clarity of the language. The concreteness. A whiff of Cormac McCarthy there, don’t you think?

Anyway, last week Andrew blogged about my upcoming book, Bystander. He began by talking about his desire to highlight that rare, most misunderstood of creatures, the book for boys. While I don’t see Bystander as exclusively for boys — I sure hope it’s not, as compared to, say, Six Innings, which pretty much is — the book does center on the male variants of middle school bullying (with a crucial female character, Mary O’Malley, going through her own thorny friendship issues and cyber-struggles).

Andrew hopes to continue to feature books for boys in upcoming posts, so you may wish to bookmark his most excellent blog. He writes of Bystander:

If you’re a middle-school teacher, I think you should buy an entire class set of James Preller’s Bystander, a tense, suspenseful, fast-paced study of bullies, their victims, and the consequences involved with being a “bystander.”

Ultimately, bullying connects all of these players, whether they see themselves as intentional participants or not . . . . Every boy who’s gone through junior high and high school has found himself in these same situations that Preller sets down so clearly in Bystander. The real value for boys here, I think, is the no-nonsense realism of the plot: There are no tidy and clear-cut answers; and just being “good” isn’t always good enough.

Boys are going to love the fast-paced arc of this story. The first 20 pages build so much understated tension that it’s impossible to stop reading. Most importantly, Bystander is a powerful and valuable resource for any school looking for additional perspectives on educating kids about bullying.

Recommended for ages 10 and above.

Thanks, Andrew!

NOTE: I have to say this. I recognize that at its worst, the kidlitosphere is filled with back-slapping and suspect praise. A cynical reading would deduce that we all read each other’s books and blogs, and praise each other, so that we in turn will “earn” some praise, that we’re an inbred group, that we’re a “we” at all, and that it all amounts to a swirling vortex of sycophantical blather. I get that. I really do. And I guess you could submit all of the above as evidence of that crime. But, but, but. In the end, as my father would say, you have to consider the source. And judge for yourself. I now throw myself on the mercy of the court.