What’s a bully made of? You’d think snips and snails and puppy dog tails, and no sugar and spice, and certainly nothing nice. But of course girls and women can be bullies as well – making up stories, spreading vicious gossip with a particular spin, treating others like garbage, manipulating people to help with their dirty work. This is a longish way to say that the books pulled off Lennoxville Library shelves this week all seem to star boys and men in the role of big baddie.
Yes, many big baddies are kids. Very young children understand very much how vicious life can be, something many adults forget (parents, we’re talking to you). Consider Lynda and Keath, two 10-year-olds in the big city who get harassed regularly. To start, they’re beaten and called names (“Zebra” is the racist name given Lynda, who’s of mixed race; Keath is “Whitey”). A well-meaning dad tries to help, but doesn’t understand the level of violence involved. And the kids rarely tell.
Author Graham McNamee mixes in the day-to-day school lives of these two inner city children with a fun story about caring for a disabled canine. The book is Nothing Wrong With A Three-Legged Dog (published in 2000, and filed at C-156). There are tidbits here for anyone who loves puppies (“[S]ometimes dogs sneeze when they’re happy. Try sneezing back at them. It’s kind of like shaking hands”). And of course, there’s coping with a bully.
At least Keath knows who’s bullying him.
That knowledge is not always available. Little Marty Chan, a six grader, discovers that someone is bullying his classmates, anonymously. The Mystery Of The Cyber Bully (written by a grown up Marty Chan, 2010, filed in C-216) is number four in this Edmonton writer’s young detective series.
As young Marty says, “At least with a real bully, you were safe at home. With cyber bullies, home was the worst place to be.”
Chan and his detective agency pals are hired to unmask the baddie (in between passing their courses and working security at the small grocery owned by Chan’s immigrant parents). There are lots of twists and turns in this case, and Chan has a gentle sense of humour (one is almost tempted to contact his real-life mother to ask about toe jam).
Will the real bully finally be caught?
And if caught, then what?
We want to believe that bullies can be fixed. That the only thing bullies need is a bit of understanding, that they can change.
Happy Birthday, Big Bad Wolf (by Frank Asch, 2011, filed at C-76) is a children’s book featuring a fun story and fab art. The Wolf pounds on the door of the Pig family, and the parents, petrified, hide.
Unfortunately, Little Piglet has not been brought up to speed on how he should fear the Wolf. Kidlet thinks it’s a secret party, and jumps out to yell “Surprise!” Forced to improvise, the parents serve cake and hand over a few toys.
“’Right,’ said the Big Bad Wolf, and he wished the Pig family hadn’t been so nice to him.”
This is the tale of a baddie hoping for a yummy pork dinner, whose evil nature is instead trumped by the innocence and love of a little piggy. It’s kind of adorable.
Slightly older readers might sympathize with poor Mark Prescott. He thinks he’s escaping a miserable summer by skipping off to summer camp – only to discover he must bunk down with his nemesis, the bully Joe Devlin. “How could Mark feel anything other than hatred for him?”
Author Paul McCuskar’s short novel, Lights Out At Camp What-A-Nut (1993, filed at C-156 and aimed at mid-level elementary schoolers) is the fifth in a series set in the small American town of Odyssey, and is published by the Christian Focus On The Family organization.
Our hero, Mark, is not entirely likeable. His parents have split up and he is desolate. But instead of trying to cope, he becomes self-obsessed to the point where his friends find him tiresome. Their good wishes aren’t enough – he demands their all.
He also expects to be special. When the nasty Joe breaks the rules, he should be smushed. When Mark breaks the rules, it should be no big deal.
Eventually, Joe and Mark must work together. And things get complicated.
There’s a lot to think about in Lights Out At Camp What-A-Nut.
There’s also a lot to think about in A Year In The Life Of A Total And Complete Genius (by Stacey Matson, 2014, filed at C-248). Grade Seven student Arthur Bean believes himself to be that complete genius, and upon getting to know him, as we do in this book, many of us will want to bully that insufferably arrogant git ourselves.
A Year In The Life is a collection of writings by Master Bean — English homework, his teacher’s thoughts and the feedback she gives him, his emails (written to a – gasp – girl), and some of his own musings, including his disgust and fear of a vicious bully who can barely spell his own name, much less write an entire sentence.
The teacher finally orders these two misfits together every week, to do homework. Each must prepare a report on their activities together. And in this manner, these two – slowly, slowly – get to know each other, to understand each other.
The portraits are witty and smart, and the tale offers a way forward for the optimist.
Indeed, when it comes to self-help, you may not be surprised that authors believe in the possibility and power of the writing cure.
The journal Scrawl is written by a high school bully (as imagined by author Mark Shulman, 2010, filed in Young Adult and donated to the Lennoxville Library by Babar). For some reason, the school guidance counsellor has dragged Tod Munn in to a few weeks of detention for an act of vandalism (though Tod’s two droogs have been ordered to spend their penance cleaning garbage). Why? Tod’s not sure, but his assignment is to write in his notebook. And it turns out that Tod, contrary to stereotype, is incredibly smart. Too smart: he lives in horrific poverty, and will never be able to get out. He can see his miserable future play out.
His mother can’t change it. His teachers are complicit.
Still, something inside him wants more. And so he writes.
For all its moments of bleakness, this novel is also incredibly engaging, and a fun read, even for adults.
Of course, we love stories of personal redemption. They are often apocryphal. (That, Tod, means that they are made up; that they do not reflect reality.)
Caroline Bock’s Young Adult novel LIE (2011) offers Jimmy, an 18-year-old on the cusp of his life, a top scholar, an incredible athlete. He’s charming and beloved by all the adults around him. His friends adore him.
On weekends, they fight for the chance to accompany Jimmy on his rounds, to be the chosen ones. Chosen to help beat the crap out of the illegal Mexican immigrants stealing jobs from white, God-fearing Americans.
As the book opens, Jimmy and a chosen one are in jail, a young Latino is in hospital at death’s door, and Jimmy’s girlfriend, 17-year-old Sky, is lying to the police. She’ll do anything to protect Jimmy.
LIE’s point of view shifts constantly amongst the players (but for Jimmy); it reads like a thriller, and is riveting. It looks at the bully, and the complicity of those around him. Silence, lies, the need for love and friendship, all these things can help a bully.
It is, in the end, our refusal to see and to act that enables the bully.
– – Eleanor Brown, April 29, 2016