Tag Archive for Cyber-bullying in children’s books

Cyberbullying in BYSTANDER: An Excerpt

As I dug deeper into my research for Bystander, a bully-themed novel set in a middle school, I realized that I could write a hundred different stories on the subject. There are so many manifestations, so many different approaches to the issue, so many stories to tell. For my immediate purposes, I decided to focus primarily on boy characters. And for the most part, I did not address cyberbullying in a major way, though I fully realized it was a topic of vital importance for children today.

Just about every educator told me the same thing, in the same words: “Girls are worse.”

That’s why I made sure that one character in the book, Mary O’Malley, was directly touched by cyberbullying. She witnesses it, participates in it, feels uncomfortable with it, and is forced to make some difficult choices. In terms of character arc, Mary gradually moves from darkness into light. Or as she tells Eric late in the book, chapter 25 [misfits], while they sit together (and alone) in the lunch room:

“I’m done worrying about what people like Alexis Brown think of me.”

“When did you get so smart?” Eric asked.

Mary shrugged. “I had to do a lot of dumb things first. After a while, I decided to try a different approach.”

“How’s it working out for you so far?”

“The food’s better,” Mary said, twisting open one of Eric’s Oreos. She turned serious. “Do you know what Mr. Scofield told me? He said not to listen when people say bad things about me. He said, ‘You know, Miss O’Malley, it says more about who they are than it does about you.'”

Here’s an excerpt from an earlier scene in chapter 16 [Mary], when Mary is hanging out with Eric Hayes. They are together at a dog park with Ginger, a Golden Retriever:

It was Eric’s first time alone with Mary. Of course, not counting Ginger’s company. The dog somehow made it easier, gave them a third thing, something outside of themselves that they could share. Mary found an old tennis ball, hurled it across the field. Ginger took off like a rocket, proudly retrieving it. Just an animal, doing what came naturally. They played that game for a long while, Eric and Mary taking turns throwing the ball, Ginger tireless and impatient.

A few times Mary’s cell phone sounded. She’d flip it open, read a text message, flip it closed.

At a certain point she stopped talking.

“You’re frowning,” Eric noted. “Is something the matter?”

Mary shook her head. But a moment later she pulled out her cell, punched a few buttons, and handed it to Eric. “Here, look at this.”

There was a photograph of a girl’s thick body. She wore shorts and a midriff-baring shirt, with the head of a pig Photoshopped onto it. “Who’s that supposed to be?” Eric asked.

“That’s Chantel Williams, you know her?”

“Sort of, we’re in a couple of classes together.”

“Well, everybody is really mad at her –“


“Okay, not everybody,” Mary replied, conceding the point. “It’s mostly Chrissie and Alexis. They want me to come over, because they want to get her back.”

Eric didn’t know Chantel well. She seemed okay. “What did she do?”

“Flirted with the wrong guy, according to Alexis.” After a pause, Mary confessed, “I know, you don’t have to say anything. It’s all so stupid.”

“What are they going to do?”

Ginger dropped the ball at Eric’s feet, then plopped to the ground herself, exhausted. He picked the ball up and threw it. Ginger watched it sail through the air, but did not otherwise stir.

“Go on, go get it!” Eric urged.

Ginger rested her chin on the cool earth. She wasn’t going anywhere. The ball could stay lost forever.

It was time to go. Eric reattached Ginger’s leash and gave a tug. He reminded Mary that she still hadn’t answered his question.

Mary sighed, shrugged, rearranged a loose strand of hair. “Something mean,” she said, eyes narrowing. “They are talking about maybe some fake Web page. Alexis has a new iMac in her room. They want me to help. I’m good with computers.”

“You’ve done stuff like that before?”

Mary looked away, nodded. “A little bit.”

One last note about some of the things I was trying to achieve here. You read in the first excerpt the reference to Mr. Scofield, an English teacher. He is a minor but recurring presence in the book, an intelligent, capable teacher who senses what’s going on and tries, in a limited way, to council and assist. The line that Mary attributes to him — “You know, Miss O’Malley, it says more about who they are than it does about you” — came to me directly from a middle school English teacher, my friend Matt Ball. He told me that’s what he sometimes said to his students, if he saw they were having a tough time. I informed Matt that I was going to use it for the book I was writing. Matt told me to be his guest. So that’s how that little piece of advice got into Bystander.

File under: I’m not making this stuff up.

“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.