Tag Archive for Bystander by James Preller

BYSTANDER Contender for “Global Read Aloud 2014”

I arrived home last night after a terrific trip to Michigan, courtesy of the good, kind folks at West Bloomfield Township Public Library. I was treated much too kindly and given the opportunity to speak with young people from 8th grade all the way up to preschool.

(See what I did there?)

More details on that trip another day.

This morning a friend directed me to this link, with information about “The Global Read Aloud.”

“What in the world’s that?”

According to the site:

The project was created in 2010 with a simple goal in mind; one book to connect the world. Now with three years under our belt and more than 30,000 connections made, we realize we are on to something larger than us so we look forward to continuing the global connections.

The premise is simple; we pick a book to read aloud to our students during a set 6-week period and during that time we try to make as many global connections as possible. Each teacher decides how much time they would like to dedicate and how involved they would like to be. Some people choose to connect with just one class, while others go for as many as possible. The scope and depth of the project is up to you. In the past we have used Twitter, Skype, Edmodo, our wiki, email, regular mail, Kidblog, and any other tools we can think of to make these connections. Teachers get a community of other educators to do a global project with, hopefully inspiring them to continue these connections through the year.

I was surprised and honored to see one of my books listed along with such company. It’s nice to be in the conversation, much appreciated. The project looks at books in various categories, according to grades. There’s “Picture Book,” “Grades 1-3,” “Grades 4-6” and “Grades 7-up.” Some of the folks named include some of my personal favorites, such as Peter Reynolds, Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, Anne Urso, Jo Knowles, and others.

Oh, wait. Before I forget, look at this cake that was made for me at Algonquin Middle School. It happened a while back, but I just found the photo on the net. I’m only a year and a half behind!

Here’s another sweet shot from that same visit to Algonquin. Thank you, Rebecca.

You can sign up for the Global Read Aloud right here.

Here are the 5 books listed for 7th-grade and up. It looks like I have some reading to do — which, to me, is always the primary point of these lists. Glad to be a contender:

  • Endangered by Elliot Schrefer
  • Bystander by James Preller
  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Gein

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #171: Ten Questions and Answers (Mostly About My Book, BYSTANDER)

Okay, I’m reaching my arm deep into the giant barrel of letters I keep here in my office . . . I’m swirling my hand around . . . and what’s this? . . . an email from Virginia!
How’d that get in here?
Thanks so much for coming to our school today. The students were very excited, and as an English Teacher let me personally thank you for writing a book (BYSTANDER) that interested 7th graders. Many a day, the students wanted to continue past the points I stopped to know what was coming next. All students were able to participate in discussions. On that note, my students had some questions I’m hoping you can answer when you have a moment. Thanks again.
1. When was your first book published and how old were you?
2. How long did SIX INNINGS take to write?
3. What had been your favorite book and why?
4. Is there going to be a movie for BYSTANDER?
5. What advice would you give to young writers?
6. What made you decide to be an author?
7. How long did BYSTANDER take to write?
8. Was Eric’s dad really in the crowd at the end or was that wishful thinking?
9. What is the premise of your next book?
10. Who was Eric based upon?
I replied:
1. I published my first book in 1986. I was 25 years old. It was titled MAXX TRAX: AVALANCHE RESCUE! It sold more than one million copies. I signed a bad, flat-fee contract and earned only $3,000 from the book. No royalties. I’m not bitter! That was 27 years ago. Water under the bridge. I’ve forgotten all about it! Really!!!
2. Hard to remember, but probably about 3 months to reach a finished first draft. Revision was tough on that one, because I had to cut 10,000 words. I guess I wandered down a lot of side paths and needed to get back on the main road, or what I think of as the “through-line” in the narrative. The early draft had too many digressions, I needed to stick closer to the game.
3. I never think in terms of favorites, but I really do love the character of Jigsaw Jones.
4. There are no plans for a movie, but — ca-ching! — that sure would be awesome.
5. Writers come in all shapes and sizes. Everybody has stories that no one else can tell. You need to read a lot — and read, at times, slowly, critically, with the mind of a writer. Rather than getting totally caught up in the story, try to become aware of the writer behind the words, the choices, the decisions, the words and their effects. Also, obviously: Spend time writing.
6. The dream took shape in college. Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who loved going to library.
7. I researched BYSTANDER for a couple of months, visiting schools, talking to experts, reading widely. The writing, which took four months, grew out of that.
8. That’s wishful thinking. Look at the words on the page. “All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, were secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted . . .”
9. The book I’m writing now returns to some of the themes in BYSTANDER, but is sympathetic to “the bully.” For me, I don’t like to label young people as any one thing, especially as a “bully.” Bullying is a behavior, not a thing. It can’t possibly define a person. I’m looking at it from that perspective.
10. Eric is not based on anyone in particular. I see him as witness, observer. He’s new in town, so the reader meets the characters in school at the same time as Eric.
Thanks, I loved visiting Virginia and I hope to make it back again someday soon. I didn’t get to eat in every restaurant in Richmond on the last trip.

Dr. Stanley Milgram’s Experiments . . . and an excerpt from BYSTANDER

In high school during the late 70’s, I became a fan of Peter Gabriel. I waited eagerly for his first solo album to come out in ’77, after leaving Genesis in ’75, and have followed his career with varying levels of enthusiasm ever since. His seventh CD, “So,” came out in 1986. It featured such hits as “In Your Eyes” and “Sledgehammer,” but also included an odd, atmospheric tune titled, “We Do What We’re Told (MIlgram’s 37).”

The lyrics were brief, basically a repeat of the title line, somewhat mechanically chanted: “We do what we’re told/told to do.”

I had heard of Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments by that time, and the song made me more curious, so I did some additional research.

For simplicity, let me quote from a site called “Songfacts“:

“This is about the social experiments of Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor who had subjects administer electric shocks to a person if they answered a question wrong. The person being shocked was an actor who writhed in pain as the shocks got larger. Milgram wanted to see if the subjects would administer the shocks when the experimenter told them to, even though they were causing apparent pain in the person. Almost all subjects administered the highest level of shock despite the actor pounding the wall in apparent agony.

Fast forward more than twenty years. I found myself thinking about bullies, and targets, and bystanders. I was reading books and blogs, talking to professionals, trying to conjure a story. The more I honed in on “bystanders,” the silent majority that holds the power and the hope, the more I recalled Milgram’s disturbing experiments. That song lyric by Peter Gabriel. The difficulty we have in standing up to authority, whether that figure wears a white lab coat or simply establishes himself as a cool kid on the playground. It’s hard to go up against that. So we do what we’re told.

For more on Milgram experiments, see the video clips below (when you’ve got some time).

I tried to give Bystander the qualities of  a thriller, the twisting knot of tension and conflict. Short chapters flowed into the next, integrated, pushing forward. But midway in the book, I gave the plot a pause — and because of that, I was uncertain if it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure about this little detour I wanted to take. In the midst of story, would the fit be seamless enough? That’s an apt metaphor for author, I think. We’re in the haberdashery business: cutting and ripping, stitching and joining seamlessly, until at the end it appears (we hope!) to work together as a unified hole.

In fact, I initially wrote the scene as a stand-alone chapter, and gave it to my editor, Liz Szabla, with the question: Does this work for you? In terms of moving the plot forward, I knew it didn’t. But sometimes plots need to plunge downward, not forward; a well-paced book is a creature different from a fast-paced book (though the two are often confused). When racing off to the next thing at breakneck speed, we sacrifice character and development. I also knew that my upcoming chapters would be increasingly dramatic, with action and conflict, so I felt like this was the right moment to slow things down. At the same time, as I said to Liz, I was willing to be talked out of including it.

Also, and maybe this is the thing: I liked the Milgram stuff. I found it fascinating, troubling, telling. I had to attempt to work it into the story, maybe more for me than for anyone else. Writing books, folks: It’s a balancing act. We’re all circus performers spinning plates, running around like clowns, trying to keep the elements of story from smashing to the ground.


Excerpt from Chapter 18 of Bystander. I include this with some hesitation, because I don’t think it’s a representative excerpt, or one of the book’s shining moments, but . . . whatever:

Mr. Scofield wiped the chalk dust off his hands. He launched into a story. “In the early 1960’s, a Yale professor named Stanley Milgram wondered about the Nazi atrocities in Germany. The Holocaust. The slaughter of six million Jews. How was it, Milgram wondered, that these German soldiers could have committed such unspeakable acts? Someone had to light the ovens. Someone had to stand by and watch it happen. How could these ordinary men have allowed this to go on?

“So Milgram set up an experiment. He recruited forty volunteers. They were average, everyday people like you or me.”

Eric’s eyes roamed around the room. A few kids had their heads on their desks, but overall, they seemed to be listening. Even Mary.

The volunteers, Scofield explained, were brought to a laboratory where they met a distinguished-looking scientist in a white lab coat. One by one, each volunteer met a man whom he or she believed to be a middle-aged accountant. After drawing the short straw, the accountant was selected to be the ‘learner’ in the experiment. “The volunteers did not realize,” the teacher said, “that the accountant was actually a professional actor, hired to play a role. The selection process was rigged.”

A boy called out, “They were punked!”

Mr. Scofield nodded. “Yes, you could say that.”

Each volunteer was assured that this was important research. They had critical jobs to perform. The accountant-slash-actor was taken to an adjacent room, where he was hooked up with wires to a large electrical generator. The scientist in the lab coat then asked the man a series of questions. If he replied incorrectly, the volunteer was instructed to flip a switch, delivering an electric shock to the accountant.

“Here’s where it gets interesting,” Mr. Scofield said.

“Finally,” Mary joked. The class laughed, but quickly grew quiet. They were already curious.

“The machine had thirty switches, all carefully labeled, ranging from 15 volts all the way up to 450 volts of electricity. With each shock,” Mr. Scofield said, “the volunteer was told to increase the voltage. The switches were not actually connected to the electrical generator, but the volunteers did not realize that.

“As the experiment progressed, the accountant began to moan in pain, then scream, then frantically pound the walls. He begged and pleaded for them to stop the experiment. Hearing this, fourteen out of forty volunteers refused to continue. But twenty-six others ignored the cries and completed the experiment. They delivered all thirty shocks, all the way to the maximum level.”

Mr. Scofield looked around the room. “I’m sure that some of those twenty-six people – like you and me – began to have doubts. They sensed it was wrong. They wanted to stop. But each time, the scientist told them in a firm voice that it was essential to continue the experiment. So they followed orders.”

He pointed at the chalkboard. We do what we’re told.

“Do you understand?”

The class remained silent, thinking it through, not really getting it. Some watched the clock, began to gather books, the bell was about to sound.

“Think for yourself!” Mr. Scofield urged his students. His eyes seemed to linger on Mary. “It doesn’t matter what other people do. You have to look into your own heart.”

“What’s this got to do with us?” a boy asked.

“Everything,” the teacher answered. “It’s about having the courage to do the right thing.”



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Bullies and Bystanders

Photo: Igor Dutina

There was a good article in yesterday’s Science Times section of The New York Times. Written by Perri Klass, M.D., it looks at bullying from a pediatrician’s point of view, and provides news about how the American Academy of Pediatrics will be publishing a new policy statement on “the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth violence.”

The article had this to say about the upcoming policy statement:

For the first time, it will have a section on bullying — including a recommendation that schools adopt a prevention model developed by Dan Olweus, a research professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, who first began studying the phenomenon of school bullying in Scandinavia in the 1970s. The programs, he said, “work at the school level and the classroom level and at the individual level; they combine preventive programs and directly addressing children who are involved or identified as bullies or victims or both.”

Dr. Robert Sege, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a lead author of the new policy statement, says the Olweus approach focuses attention on the largest group of children, the bystanders. “Olweus’s genius,” he said, “is that he manages to turn the school situation around so the other kids realize that the bully is someone who has a problem managing his or her behavior, and the victim is someone they can protect.”

As the author of a new book titled Bystander (Feiwel and Friends, September, 2009), a book that was informed and inspired in part by Olweus’s work, I’m thrilled to read that the American Academy of Pediatrics is taking this issue seriously. I came away from my own research with the belief that our focus has to be on the community, on the school environment, on the bystander’s social and ethical responsibilities. That is, yes, we are our brother’s keepers.

Dr. Sege used a nice turn of phrase later in the article. He spoke of “activating the bystanders.” Here’s another clip from the article:

Dr. Sege said, “activating the bystanders” means changing the culture of the school; through class discussions, parent meetings and consistent responses to every incident, the school must put out the message that bullying will not be tolerated.

So what should I ask at a checkup? How’s school, who are your friends, what do you usually do at recess? It’s important to open the door, especially with children in the most likely age groups, so that victims and bystanders won’t be afraid to speak up. Parents of these children need to be encouraged to demand that schools take action, and pediatricians probably need to be ready to talk to the principal. And we need to follow up with the children to make sure the situation gets better, and to check in on their emotional health and get them help if they need it.

Anyway, this is an issue that means a lot to me, and means a lot to my editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla. It has always been my hope that Bystander — not a handbook, but a work of fiction with tension and drama — would help in some way with this issue. That maybe teachers would use it in school, discuss it in classrooms, get kids talking and thinking.

More and more, as this writing career moves into its third decade, I’ve come to the conviction that a book is not an end, but a beginning. It’s about what happens after you read the book. The thoughts that occur, the conversations that take place.

But that’s a big topic, and better left for another day . . .