From the archives — The Bullies of Fiction, Part Three

This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on April 26, 2011.

In reading about bullying, both in books and on the internet, I have become intrigued by the use of bibliotherapy in dealing with bullying — both for bullied and for the bully. I can see the possibility of incredible benefits both in one-to-one bibliotherapy, and in using books in classrooms to address topics such as bullying, even in classrooms of quite young children, using picture books to start discussions that could indirectly result in bullies beginning to understand that there are other, better ways of relating to children, in the bullied learning useful ways to react to bullying, and in the “bystander” group of children learning to speak up against bullying rather than staying silent, or joining in.

I have found several websites dealing with the topic of bibliotherapy with children, including booklists (I note that Chrysanthemum is on one of the booklists I found, and One Hundred Dresses is on another list.) Just as examples of what’s out there, check out this site and this one.

Three books that I’ve read recently could lead to interesting conversations in a bibliotherapy session, in a classroom setting, or in a one-on-one reading time with one’s own child. In contrast to the books I reviewed yesterday, in these books, the child is not first shown as being taught that his differences are valuable, positive aspects of his personality. His family is not shown as supporting him in the face of the bullies, in fact, the teasing, misunderstanding, and bullying is shown as beginning in the family unit itself. This provides a very different perspective on the issue. If one can’t even find support in one’s family, where can one turn?

It is interesting that the protagonist in each of the books today is a boy, and the protagonist in each of the books in the previous review is a girl. I don’t know if there is anything to that beyond coincidence, or if families are generally more supportive of girls’ differences than of boys’. Since, in each of these books, the major accusation is of “sissy”, it is perhaps not surprising that the family of the boy is not supportive, especially the male members of the family. The thought of raising a “sissy” strikes at the masculinity of all the male members of a family in a visceral way, and no doubt causes teasing and taunting as a misguided way of “toughening the boy up”, or causing the boy to rethink his actions and try to become more stereotypically “manly”.

The first book I want to look at was published in 1972, and has stood the test of time. I first became aware of it back in the 1970s, when the concept behind the book was translated into song/drama form as part of Marlo Thomas’s “Free to Be, You and Me“. William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow introduces us to William, who wants a doll like the one the neighbor girl has, a doll he can hug, and cradle in his arms, and rock to sleep. This, not surprisingly, leads to taunting and teasing on the part of his brother and his brother’s friends, and leads to more and more desperate attempts by William’s father to engage his son in more masculine pursuits. William dutifully plays with the basketball his father gives him, and gets good at it, he builds an elaborate town for the electric train he is given, “but that had nothing to do with the doll. William still wanted one.” In gentle, lyrical phrases, accompanied by equally gentle illustrations, Zolotow leads us through William’s experience with the taunts of “sissy” and “creepy”, shows us that William is a “real” boy who likes basketball and trains perfectly well, he just wants a doll, too. This would be helpful when talking with a child, or a group of children, about differences that they might think make a boy less than a boy, or make a girl less than a girl, and could help in breaking down stereotypes that continue to be supported by our society at large. It turns out that there is one person who understands William’s desire. William’s grandmother comes to visit, and immediately understands William, and goes out and buys him a doll. When his father and brother object, the grandmother points out that taking care of his doll will help William be a good father one day — something that had never occurred to those who were caught up in thinking that William was a sissy. I highly recommend this book!

The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein, illustrated by Henry Cole — more accusations of “sissy”, more attempts by Dear Old Dad to make a “real man” out of his son. Unlike William, Elmer the Duckling is not good at baseball or any of the other masculine pursuits his father suggests. Elmer excells in baking, in homemaking, in other things that none of the other little boy ducklings do. He overhears his father ranting that he is raising a sissy, and worriedly asks his mother about it. Fortunately for Elmer, his mother supports him, and gives him the necessary message that he is special, with a very insightful comment: “Being special sometimes scares those who are not.” She assures him that “one day you will amaze us all.” The action in the story heats up when a larger duckling at school begins to actively bully Elmer, both verbally and physically. Elmer uses his mother’s words in his own defense, but these only cause the bully to taunt him more. Finally, in a way completely unforeseen to the reader, Elmer is able to “amaze them all” just as his mother had predicted. (And you’re just going to have to read the book yourself to find out what Elmer does!)

The final book in this trio, and the final review in this series about bullying goes further than it would have been possible to go not that many years ago. In 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, with illustrations by Rex Ray, there is more than a “simple” taunt of “sissy”. In this book, the reader meets Bailey, who dreams of having 10,000 dresses, all different, all beautiful. The problem (or at least Bailey’s family and others around Bailey see it as a problem) is that in their minds, Bailey is not a person who should be wearing dresses. As Bailey’s mother says, “You’re a BOY. Boys don’t wear dresses.” Bailey counters that she doesn’t feel like a boy. Ah — you notice the pronoun I used? Through skillful use of pronouns, using “she” when writing Bailey’s thoughts and “he” when anyone else is speaking to her, the author subtly indicates that this book is about a transgender child. For this reason, it will, I’m sure, require explanation and discussion between reader and child, or teacher and class, and so it would be best if the adult read this first and prepared for the questions that are bound to come. By the end of the story, Bailey meets someone who accepts her for who she is, which will also lead to talking points and teaching points. This book can be a valuable resource in today’s humanscape, and is sure to provoke much discussion.

This ends the three-part series on children’s books on bullying. It has certainly helped me to learn both about bullying, and about writing on this topic. I hope the series has been valuable for you as it has been for me.

Scroll to Top