Archive for May 22, 2012

Are Students Sick & Tired of Anti-Bullying Messages? And What About You?

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I have doubts. Not about bullying, exactly — I know it’s a serious issue, a matter of life and death — but I fret about the effectiveness of talking about it.

You could call it an occupational hazard.

Does anyone hear the message anymore?

Anti-bullying rhetoric seems everywhere these days. Trending hot on Twitter. Almost fadish. And I sometimes wonder if kids have tuned it out. In my travels, I’ve talked to many teachers who have expressed that worry.

This year, I’ve visited schools in OH, MA, FLA, MI, NJ, NY, SC, PA, and CN — often because I wrote the book, Bystander. I’ll arrive at a school where all the middle schoolers, grades 6-8, have read and discussed my book. They’ve wrestled with the issues, hopefully identified with characters, felt compassion, empathy, anger. Or, I guess, some of them have just been bored by another book they didn’t get to select themselves. In most cases, my novel is only one small piece of a comprehensive anti-bullying agenda.

But as I’ve said before, I wrote a book. A story. Not a brochure on how to make your school a “bully-free zone.”

Despite the amazing letters I receive, I still wonder what I can say on a school visit that won’t come off as yet another lecture to this audience. What can I say that might make a difference. And if, perhaps, they simply can’t hear it anymore.

Is it worth beating on that same old drum?

Then I opened up The New York Times and read Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece from Thursday, May 17. And I’m reminded, yet again, why this matters so very much; and how real people — the children in our village — are powerfully effected every single day; and that anything we can do is far, far better than sad resignation.

As an author and father of three children, ages 11, 12, and 19, I believe that the core of this issue comes back to simple values. Do unto others. The importance of thinking to yourself, “How would that make me feel?” Identifying with others. Caring. Our fundamental humanity.

The issue of bullying is about the importance of compassion, tolerance, kindness, and empathy — at a time in life when empathy does not come easily to many middle schoolers. Stories can help. Like Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, to cite one recent, brilliant work of children’s literature. I read it recently and then pressed it into my 5th-grade daughter’s hands. You must read this, I said. I loved the way, like any great book, Wonder brought us into the hearts and minds of different characters. How we experienced forms of bullying, of painful isolation, from the inside out. I loved Palacio’s message of kindness and compassion.

Anyway, I digress.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Kristof’s op-ed piece:

Plenty of adults are skeptical about the fuss over bullying. “How come the thin-skinned kids nowadays can’t handle the bullying that made us better, stronger adults?” one man wrote to me on Twitter.

He should read what Madison Jaronski, 15, of New Hope, Pa., wrote:

“Tears have been flooding down my face; breathing is a task that now seems impossible. I draw my legs closer and closer into my chest as I try to transform the pressure into reassuring comfort. I begin to slowly rock myself, and by now my tears have colored my pillow black. …

“All of my accomplishments and enjoyable moments are overshadowed by the pain and harassment that was thrust upon me. Just looking at my surface, you would see a confident young woman, as sturdy as a rock. You would never think that I was broken, broken into a million pieces like shattered glass, all because of the work of a group of senior boys.”

You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.

To read the winning essays, go here. Just do it.

You will be blown away.

Here’s a brief sample from one winning essay, written by Lena Rawley, age 17, from Montclair, NJ:

Teenage girls are cruel super-humans from a distant galaxy sent here to destroy us all. They have the self entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman Gladiator. Like vampires they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters. Adolescent boogeymen.

While my observations may be coming from a point of bias, that doesn’t mean they are faulty in accuracy. As a teenage girl myself, I think I know teenage girls quite well. Not only was I a former teenage mean girl, but I was tortured, tormented, isolated and socially maimed by them as well.


Just came across this school that featured a booktalk about Bystander, way back in 2011. I appreciate that this kind of thing has been happening in many schools across the country, and sometimes on a schoolwide scale, but this one is especially sweet since I grew up in Nassau County, too. I just love the idea of parents and kids coming together and talking about this stuff — that this book, my book, offers a safe springboard for those conversations. Wow.


Lastly, here’s a recent Doonesbury . . . still kicking it after all these years.

Fan Mail Wednesday #153: Funny Line

A quickie today. A boy named Dominik wrote a brief whisper of a letter, and concluded with a sentence that cracked me up.

My favorite scene in every book is when the case ends.

I told him I often feel the same relief. Okay, sure, I know what he meant, that moment of satisfying resolution when the detectives get their man. But substitute “book” for “case” and it reads differently.

Fan Mail Wednesday #152: Featuring Artwork!

I like it when the letters include artwork.

I replied:

Dear Andrew,

Hey, thanks for your typed letter, the terrific drawing, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Well played, young man!

I’m glad you liked The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. It has one of my favorite moments in it, when Mila figures the suspect might have printed his name in the shirt. After all, moms and dads do that for kids all the time when they go to camp. So Jigsaw checks the shirt and says, “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer.”

For blog readers, here’s the scene where Mila and Jigsaw investigate the mysterious scarecrow . . .

Mila fumbled with the shirt collar. “My father’s a neat freak,” Mila jabbered. “He organizes everything. He even writes my name in the back of all my clothes.”

Mila smiled. “Look,” she said.

I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer.”

“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name.”

I read the name that was printed on the marker: Buzzy Lennon.

I looked up into the trees. There were hardly any leaves left. The sky was crisp and bright. Halloween was next week, then Thanksgiving, then the frozen days and nights of winter. I turned to the front door of the sad, old, silent house. “Let’s see if the doorbell works,” I said.

The door slowly opened with an eerie squeak. Mrs. Rigby’s small, red-rimmed eyes blinked in the sun.

“Yes, what is it?” she asked.

I got the name of the old lady who lived alone in the house from a song by The Beatles: “Eleanor Rigby.”

I appreciate your idea for a different ending. And you are right, that would have been smart. Too bad that Buzzy was so lazy -– he’d rather cheat than do an honest day’s work.

It was nice hearing from you. Keep on reading those books!

Your friend,


Fan Mail Wednesday #151: Some Letters Are Just So Sad

When you are an author, and if you are lucky, kids send you letters. Some are formulaic, an assignment; others go deeper and seem more genuine. And some letters chip away at your heart — and you try to answer the best way you know how.

I won’t share the full letter here, or my reply. But read this . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #150: Weirdness & Other Fine Qualities

To mix things up, I thought I’d run a “Fan Mail Wednesday” piece on an actual Wednesday. I think it’s good to keep readers off-balance. So, here’s a good one. I only wish I could share with you the name of the letter writer, it’s just one of those perfect names that authors like me love to steal.

I replied:

Dear H____,

Thanks for your wonderful letter, I really enjoyed it. I don’t hear from many students who write in cursive –- I thought it had gone the way of the dinosaurs. These days I sign my books in print, because I assume that most kids can’t even read cursive.

Smart that you picked up on Joey’s eating. There are many characters in the Jigsaw Jones series, 40 books, 250,000 words. I try to make each character complete – an individual. I do that by trying to give each one a few distinct traits. Joey is a little goofy, sweet-natured, and he often takes things too literally, like Amelia Bedelia (as when, in The Case of the Rainy Day Mystery, Jigsaw tells him to “put a tail on Bigs Maloney”). But the real key to Joey is his enthusiasm for food. He eats fast, and usually has a crumbled Oreo in his back pocket.

Art by Jamie Smith from The Case of the Rainy Day Mystery. Sadly, it looks like Scholastic has let this most excellent book go out of print. I dream of  getting the rights back for these neglected books, and republishing them myself. I know I could sell ’em.

So, hmmm, some people think you are weird. Maybe you are a different, I don’t know. But there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m often bored when I meet super-normal people, you know what I mean? I think it’s our quirks and oddities that make us interesting. And believe me, everyone has a little bit of weirdness inside. We’re human beans, after all; it’s our differences that make the world go round.

Anyway, as we travel through life, we eventually find and attract the right kinds of friends –- the people who like us for who we are. If someone thinks you are weird . . . so what. You don’t have to “not like them,” but I do recommend not paying much attention to that kind of thinking.

Be yourself, H_____. Thanks for your kind, well-written letter. You made me happy, and I think you’re terrific. My best,