Tag Archive for Rebekah Heinrichs

“How Kids Can Handle a Bully”: Um, Thanks, I Think, But Not Exactly . . .

I recently came across this mention in The Washington Post, under the title, “Two books about how kids can handle a bully“:

To learn more about bullies, read “10 Days to a Bully-Proof Child” by Sherryll Kraizer (DaCapo, $15) and give “Bystander” by James Preller (Feiwel & Friends, $17) to your daughter. This riveting young adult novel tells teenagers all they need to know about bullies and how they can handle them best.

I can’t speak for Ms. Kraizer’s book, which aims at “bully-proofing,” but my novel does nothing of the sort. It’s far from a how-to book, and it certainly does not provide easy answers. No disrespect, but I’m skeptical about the promise of “bully-proofing” anybody — maybe it’s just the term I don’t like, it feels too facile, too much like marketing. But to be clear: I recognize that it is important to provide realistic, practical strategies for adults and children to help curb bullying. Credit goes to Ms. Kraizer for contributing to the cause.

To read about this boy in

a 2008 NY Times article, click here.

Bystander — which works best, I think, for readers ages 10-14 — is a work of FICTION. Ms. Kraizer’s book is NONFICTION. We are using entirely different tools, each with its own strengths and limits. I’m not opposed to the pairing of our books in The Washington Post, just the sloppy “one size fits all” presentation, making a promise for my book that it can’t possibly fulfill.

I don’t believe it is in the fiction writer’s realm to “solve” problems. We are better at presenting them, hopefully providing insight, understanding, a little light. I hope that Bystander is a good conversation starter, and a dramatic way for readers to see themselves within the triad of bully/victim/bystander. But as a matter of fact, my impulse to write the novel was partly in reaction against all the books and movies I encountered that promised simple, unrealistic solutions to complex, knotty problems. There’s no magic fix. Rather than providing answers, I hope my book helps readers figure out some of the questions.

My middle son, Gavin, is just about to embark on his first year in middle school. It’s a time of great physical and emotional changes, complicated by the rising hegemony of peers: a difficult transition for any kid to navigate. I won’t pretend that any of this is clear-cut, or that any child’s identity can be neatly labeled, given the multitude of social roles he likely plays within a single day: athlete, student, son, pet-lover, bully, neighbor, victim, friend, brother, etc.  We’re all a burbling mixture of confidence and insecurity, strength and vulnerability, compassion and insensitivity, black and white and a whole lot of gray. It ain’t easy.

Back to the blurb: I was glad the writer found my book “riveting,” and yet also amused, because clearly he/she didn’t read the book. Can one be riveted by the smell of a book? The flap copy? The heft of it in one’s hand? Can a book look riveting?

Not that I’m complaining, but.

For parents and educators, I can strongly recommend two nonfiction books which helped in my research: The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso; and Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying, by Rebekah Heinrichs. Despite Heinrichs’s focus on children with Aspergers, I found that the book’s themes and issues were universal.

Books for Boys?!

School Library Journal recently ran a review for Along Came Spider. Written by Elizabeth Swistock, you can read it in full by clicking wildly right here and scrolling insanely downwards.

I think Ms. Swistock gives an accurate, sympathetic review, while noting that “several of the traits that Preller describes could be associated with autism spectrum disorder, but Trey’s condition is never stated outright.”

Not naming Trey’s condition was a conscious choice. Maybe that was a mistake on my part, I don’t know. But for the record, I saw Trey as a boy with high-functioning Asperger Syndrome. What I felt at the time, correctly or not, was that most kids wouldn’t perceive things that way — they’d be dealing with the near reality of a quirky boy, not an abstract label, so I tried to hug close to that perspective. In today’s inclusive classrooms, these are daily encounters for most children.

By the way, here’s one of the many great books I found on the subject, Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying, by Rebekah Heinrichs.

For the purposes of Along Came Spider, I didn’t see the behaviors exhibited in the book as “bullying” per say, since I hate to see every incident of like or dislike — or even one-time acts of physical violence — thrown under the notorious bullying umbrella. Vast topic, too big for this entry. I’ll have a lot more to say on that later, when we get closer to the publication of Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2009), a dramatic novel that takes a closer look at bullying in a middle school environment

The interesting part of the review comes at the end (doesn’t it always?). Ms. Swistock concludes:

The fact that Trey and Ava are extremely self-aware and kindhearted is a redeeming quality, but the book could prove too uneventful for its intended audience. That’s too bad because Trey is a sweet character and Preller’s message is a good one.

I want to repeat the key phrase there: too uneventful for its intended audience.

Let’s be clear: I have no argument with the reviewer. She very well may be correct. It’s not been a huge seller. Though it is a book about boys — that also features strong female characters — it might not fit into the category of The Type of Books That Boys Like. There’s not a lot of action. It’s a friendship story. Maybe it would be boring for typical boys, whomever or whatever that might be. I loved the observation made by Karen Terlecky at Literate Lives in the very first review of Spider:

I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find where they belong . . . .

I wonder: Did I accidentally write a girlie book about boys? And is such a thing possible? Or unwelcome? Or needed? Can it be that a He-Man such as myself is, deep down, just a wuss?

I am genuinely interested in this topic and invite your comments. It’s something I’ve been puzzling over for a while now. I haven’t reached any wise conclusions. But maybe that’s what blogging should be: that it’s okay, maybe even preferable, to open things up for discussion, rather than attempt to neatly wrap things up, tie down all the loose ends.

On a diagnostic level, we can all agree that boys don’t read as much as girls. We can see the divides in our educational system. But it becomes far trickier when we encounter it on a prescriptive level, when we read that we need more . . . books for boys.

Because, of course, what IS a book for boys? Following the standard clichés, we’ll see well-intentioned publishers roll out a bunch of sports titles and a series of picture books about trucks and dinosaurs. Boys love that stuff! Oh yeah, and gross stuff, too — boys love disgusting things. Farts and vomit! Bodily functions! Smashing things! Underwear! And on and on.

And you can see where that kind of reductionistic thinking leads us. Exactly nowhere. Where Boy becomes Caricature, effectively ignoring the vast number of outliers, the sensitive ones, the insecure boys, ignoring the notion that boys may be All That and So Much More.

What is a book for a boy? What do boys like? To answer that, we have to address the idea of what is a boy? I guess what worries me is when those answers get too restrictive, too limited, when publishing for boys does a disservice to what boyness is all about, in all its sprawling, messy glory.

“Oh, here comes a boy. Do I have a book for you!