From the archives — The Bullies of Fiction, Part Two
October 27, 2012
This was first posted on April 25, 2011.
Bullying, from seemingly innocuous teasing to much more serious acts, is all too often seen by adults as “a normal part of growing up.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing “normal” about bullying, and it should not be condoned in any way. Bullying, whether in a day care setting, a school yard, or a workplace, means that someone has granted him or herself unwarranted power over another individual, through subtle or not-so-subtle means. The bully — who often has self-esteem issues, or other issues that cause a feeling of powerlessness — seeks to build him or herself up by tearing someone else apart. This can lead to personal and social difficulties for the bullied, and in extreme cases can lead to suicide. Meanwhile, as research shows, many childhood bullies go on to have trouble with the law as they get older.
Thankfully, these days more people are becoming aware of the problem, and there are resources available to parents, educators, and kids to help the bullied, the bullies, and those who either follow the mob mentality and join in the teasing, taunting, and tormenting, or simply stand on the sidelines and do nothing to help.
One such resource is this excellent website, Bullying.org, which offers the reassurance that it is a place “Where You Are Not Alone.” Other resources can take the seemingly simple form of picture books.
In each of the three picture books I want to share with you in this post, the main character, the one who is bullied in some way, is fortunate that she is able to start from a position of strength. In each of these books, the author has carefully detailed ways in which the adults in the protagonist’s world have built up the child’s sense of self-worth, and have shown how their differences can be seen as assets rather than liabilities. Thus, when the bullying begins to happen, the protagonist is hurt initially, but has an inner store of positive messages to draw on to enable a constructive and ultimately triumphant response to the bully.
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon written by Patty Lovell and illustrated by David Catrow, is the story of a little girl — a very tiny girl — who has several “odd” physical features — she’s “the shortest girl in first grade”, she has “buck teeth that stuck out so far, she could stack pennies on them”, and so on. Through the first several pages of the book, the reader is introduced to this tiny girl, and to the way her grandmother has taught her to see these features as positive. So we are repeatedly told that “She didn’t mind” this or that problem, because her grandma had taught her well. Then she has to move away, and start a new school, where a boy immediately pounces on all these differences as opportunities to tease Molly Lou. She, however, operating out of the position of the strength of her grandmother’s assurances, counteracts each of the boy’s taunts, to the delight of the other children — and repeatedly we are told “and Ronald Durkin felt very foolish.” Eventually, of course, Ronald is won over. The pay-off on the last page is a delightful surprise, which I’ll leave you to discover on your own. This book shows the importance of parents and caregivers being sensitive to those things that make a child feel “different” and to showing the child how to put a positive spin on these differences. The story would make a good starting point for talking about alternate ways to view such things. The artwork in this book is stylized, and emphasizes the “oddities” in Molly Lou’s appearance, for effect. I found a few of the pictures a bit too exaggerated and “in your face”, but I’m sure children will see the funny side of the illustrations, as well as the message in the text.
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman with illustrations by Caroline Binch portrays a strong, creative, imaginative girl named Grace who loves to act out stories, and who is encouraged in this by both her mother and her grandmother. No matter the source of the story, Grace loved to act them out, “and she always gave herself the most exciting part.” So it is no surprise when Grace puts her hand up, wanting the lead role in the class’s production of Peter Pan. It is a surprise for her when a boy says she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s a girl, and a girl says she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s black. Her grandmother has the solution — she takes Grace to a performance of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, which stars a young black woman as Juliet, and seeing this young woman dancing gives Grace the confidence to try out for the part of Peter Pan, and to triumph. Although the reader expects Grace to triumph in the end, the ending seemed almost too perfect to me, the change in the children’s attitude too quick. However, the book does affirm the message of building up a child so that they can weather the storms of teasing or opposition. (And the illustrations are wonderful!)
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes is another excellent book by this author, using the life of a little mouse-child to illustrate a story that any human-child will be able to identify with in some way. (Be sure to click on the link provided — it will take you to Kevin Henkes’ website.) Once again, the author spends the first part of the book building a solid foundation of positivity for the child to fall back on when the bullying begins. We are told in many different ways how and why little Chrysanthemum loves her name — until she gets to school, where all the rest of her classmates have short names, and tease her about her long name, so long it “scarcely fits on your name tag.” This happens three days in a row — and each time, Henkes uses the perfect term to describe the little mouse-girl’s reaction to the teasing. “Chrysanthemum wilted.” The little girl who went happily to school drags home, and tells her parents, who promptly build her self-esteem back up again, using a plethora of adjectives which will engage child and parent/caregiver/reader in interesting discussions about word-meanings. Finally something (and I’m not saying what!) happens that not only makes Chrysanthemum bloom (Henkes’ word!), but changes the way the other children view her name, as well. This book is a gentle way to start looking at teasing and bullying with a child. (Teasing is not always “just fun”, as so many would say.)
There you have it — three books that show how very important it is to ensure that children have a solid sense of their self-worth, in order to face the difficulties that are, unfortunately, bound to come. And perhaps, if those who have a tendency to bully were encouraged in the same way to recognize their own worth, they would not need to drag others down to build themselves up.