Tag Archive for student responses to bystander preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #202: More Questions About the Ending of “Bystander”


This one comes via a terrific teacher I met on a school visit a year or two ago . . .


I am sitting with a student right now who just told me that “Bystander” is the first book that he has ever enjoyed reading. He finished it up and asked for another book by “that author.” Just wanted to give you the positive feedback! 
Also, my students are wondering:
1) Is “Bystander” is based on a true story. 
2) Did you consider writing a different ending? 
I replied:
Sorry it took me a while to get back to you — and I’m even more sorry that I seem to begin every missive these days with an apology. 
1) No, not a true story, but always elements of truth — and my real life — seem to seep into every story I write. The characters are completely made up, composites of things I’ve read and seen and imagined. For me the heart of story is always about character, character, character.
97803125479672) Yes, I did conceive of a different ending. To backtrack, I fully understand that the ending in the book — the one I picked — is anti-climactic. It also offends our human sense of fairness; in books & movies & in real life, we tend to prefer for the bad guy to learn his lesson or, even better, to get taken down by some form of justice. Eaten by a dragon, preferably. That kind of ending is (almost) always the most satisfying. It’s a time when, in movie theaters, we stand up and cheer. A story is, of course, artifice. A construct, a false thing conceived in pursuit of “truth,” if you will. But in this case, I really strived to stay true to life as I knew it, thus: the ending of the book. I rejected the phony ending, even when I knew that many readers might prefer it.
That said, sure, I played around with a different idea. The seeds of it are still in the book. Griffin has been stealing from parked cars; the police strongly suspect him; and Eric has discussed this — in the vaguest of terms — with a police officer. The ending I conjured was for Eric to somehow be involved in setting up Griffin’s fall. Griffin gets snagged by the cops and justice is served. Everybody stand up and cheer!
As you know, I did not write that ending, mostly because I didn’t believe it. Though, again, the seeds are there. I ultimately rejected Eric’s role in that kind of setup, but the story does suggest that Griffin is clearly on the wrong path. Trouble waits ahead unless Griffin turns things around. There’s also the possibility that I still have a degree of sympathy for Griffin, despite everything. I just didn’t have the heart to see him walk off in handcuffs. If that’s the come, it will happen later in his life.
I should also add that I never considered the standard bully ending, where he learns his lesson and everybody hugs at the end.
Thanks for your positive feedback and for keeping my book in your classroom library.

Fan Mail #166: Lessons Learned, Messages Sent (and a Complaint about The Berenstain Bears)

Here’s one I had to think about a little bit, then pause, and reconsider, and pause again.

Dear Mr.Preller:

We are 7th graders at _______ Middle School. We have recently read your book Bystander, and have learned some valuable lessons about bullying. We wanted to thank you for enlightening us in this serious topic. This was a great book, and here are the lessons we learned.

The first is not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is how Griffin seemed nice, but then turned out to be the bully. Another is how David seemed to be nice, but then led Eric into a trap. This just proves that you shouldn’t judge people before you know them.

We also learned that everyone is different and that sometimes it is perfectly fine to be different. You have showed us that it’s ok to express ourselves because you are you and that is all anyone could ask for. This is a good book to read if you need advice about bullying or having troubles with bullying. We hope you are writing more books about this serious topic and are inspiring more people to stand up to bullying.


Chloe and Luke

I replied:

Dear Luke and Chloe:

Thanks for reading Bystander and also for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s interesting when I send a book out into the world — I never know what the world will bounce back. As a writer, I never thought of myself as “teaching lessons” in my books, at least dogmatically, and I’d hate to reduce any novel to just “lessons learned.” At the same time, I would contend that it’s impossible to tell a story without sending a series of signals, values, messages.

I used to hate the Berenstain Bears books. Do you remember those? So popular. Each book set out to teach us something important! It got on my nerves pretty fast. And later on, as I had my own children, I began to intensely dislike how Papa Berenstain was such an unrelenting nit-wit. The big dumb dad, lacking in all thought. Sigh.

So while the stories might have set out to teach a valuable lesson, i.e., “Be nice to grandma!”, the unwritten message was often, “Dad’s kind of a dope. Insensitive, careless, clumsy. You know how fathers are.”

While my book, Bystander, does directly address the dynamic of bullying, what I hope shines through is the importance for readers like you to think for yourselves. To listen to your own heart, the good information that comes from your gut, rather than following the crowd. I never intended to hand a list of easy lessons to readers, and, frankly, I think most readers are loathe to pick up a book to learn “valuable lessons.”

While writing it, I was very much inspired by thrillers. I really wanted to give readers a quick, fast-paced, lively reading experience. A good read! I love literature, I love STORY — I love great television shows and movies, too — because they allow us to intimately visit with human beings we’d likely never encounter in our regular lives. By reading, we see new places, experience different points of view, and walk around in a different pair of shoes. In some books, we’re afforded a glimpse into how a variety of folks might feel at any given time. Rarely is another person 100% right or 100% wrong. It’s not black or white; we mostly come in shades of gray.

Stories help us build empathy, understanding, awareness, and tolerance.

In the end, the book closed, you guys will take away from it what you will. I don’t think there are lessons that you should or shouldn’t learn. Bullying is enormously complex, mostly because people are all so complicated. We are never ONE THING in life. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are loving and tender and careless and cruel — all before we’ve even sat down to munch on our morning bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats!

Thanks for your great letter, and for prodding me into these thoughts. Stand up, speak out, and above all, be kind.


Comments Section, re: BYSTANDER (a couple of highlights)

Oftentimes folks comment on past blog entries, no longer the current thread. So my sense is that My Nation of Readers does not ever see these comments.

And how sad is that?

So here’s two from today that I had to share. The first one made me laugh . . .

From Dakota:

I was reading your book called BYSTANDER. In the chapter called ” repairs”. I was reading page 198 and It said “Cody pulled a dirty bandanna from his back pocket to wipe the grease from his hands.” I thought it said cody pulled a dirty banana out of his back pocket. I was reading it in a group and every one laughed when i said ” dirty banana” instead of “dirty bandanna.”

From Makayla:

I read your book BYSTANDER and to be honest it was outstanding! You really know how to use all types of figurative language. Like when you described the buses as being “enormous Twinkies.” It really made our class laugh out loud. I liked how you titled the chapters, like how you made them important in that section of the book. You are a truly talented author and I look forward to reading more of your books. Thank you for your time Mr. Preller.