Editorial September 2004 : Books vs. Bullies By Hilary Williamson
Though the David vs. Goliath theme of the small and weak up against the big and powerful is prevalent in books that kids and teens (not to mention older folk) enjoy, bullying per se is less common as a central plot device. Yet those who are bullied often seek refuge in books. This even becomes a literary device in Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard - her heroine dives into a library seeking refuge from a gang of bullies, and there finds an instruction manual on wizardry.
The notion of new talents that empower the powerless is common to fantasy - just think Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. And it's not just the male of the species who win these abilities. The Cinderella story is alive and well in Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng, whose young protagonist mesmerizes her way to success. And Elizabeth Lenhard's superheroines use their powers over the elements to kick butt, defeating both bullies and alien monsters in her W.I.T.C.H. series. But what about real life?
My all-time favorite fictional response to bullying occurs in Jerry Spinelli's classic Maniac Magee - a phantom Samaritan in flap-soled sneakers rescues a child from bullies, and faces off gang leaders on both sides of the tracks. Robert Cormier's Chocolate War doesn't pull any punches in its look at cruelty and its consequences amongst staff and students at a private school. And I love Doug Wilhelm's Revealers, in which three kids create social change at Parkland Middle School, nicknamed 'Darkland' by students coping daily with harrassment and emotional violence.
What about younger kids? Toni and Slade Morrison and Pascal Lemaitre deliver a wonderful Aesop's fable retelling, Who's Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse? The lion is 'the baddest in all the land' till a thorn in his foot changes his tune. But after the mouse helps the lion and turns into a wannabe bully himself, an older and wiser lion ponders 'Is he who wants to be a bully just scared to be himself?' And Don't Laugh At Me by Steve Seskin, Allen Shamblin & Glin Dibley tells how it feels to be vulnerable, and pleads 'Don't laugh at me. / Don't call me names. / Don't get your pleasure from my pain'.
It's hard to grow up without being on the receiving end of bullying, or experiencing a bystander's helplessness. What can books do? They can model leadership as in Maniac Magee, resistance as in The Chocolate War, and creative solutions as in The Revealers. They can teach us to learn from experience as in Who's Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse?. And they can encourage us to have compassion for each other and to seek to build more caring communities, as in Don't Laugh At Me.Interested in more? These are recommended (non-fiction) titles on the topic:
And Words Can Hurt Forever by James Garbarino & Ellen deLara 'How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence'.