Oct 17, 2013

Plenty of Bullies in the World, Plenty of Books to Help

Superheroes seem to be everywhere these days- except when they are needed most.
In a post earlier this month I offered the opinion (and who would want to ignore my opinion, I ask?), that National Bullying Prevention Month should instead be a lifelong focus. Furthermore, I urged that a pro-social approach year-round could accomplish as much or more than simply teaching defensive strategies.

I find it more tragic than ironic that during this month two young teen girls are now charged with contributing to the death of their (former) friend, Rebecca Sedwick. She committed suicide after relentless cyber-bullying, including direct messages from them that she'd be better off dead. This story shocks most in the fact that it is not the first time we've heard of similar situations. If I'm becoming even the slightest bit immune to a response of abject horror, how utterly must such reports inoculate young people. Can we allow a generation to grow up believing this to be "normal", inevitable, a rite of passage into adulthood? 

Building a sense of safety and acceptance within surrounding communities is more than an idealistic notion. In this case the bullies were allowed to persist with the full awareness of peers who remained silent for fear of becoming targets themselves. That means they already defined themselves as victims rather than leaders, or even as members of a safe community with responsibility for peers. 

Schwartz and Wade, 2013
Whether or not you discuss news items like this depends on the age of the child or group. Bullying, on the other hand, even when its consequences are painful, is a topic for any and every age.
Here are just a few examples to start the conversation:
BLUEBIRD, by Bob Staake, uses a graphic art style and a graphic novel layout with panel sequences. Combine that with a limited palette and this wordless book is more challenging than most. The story has many subplots, the emotional arc is intense, and the conclusion is dramatic. This is a great example of a picture book that serves many purposes at many different ages.

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013

Next up, it's OL' MAMA SQUIRREL, by David Ezra SteinWithin a page or two young listeners will be chiming in with Ol' Mama when she CHOOK, CHOOK, CHOOKs the intruders away from her babes. When the bear tests her limits she invokes the "strength in numbers" mantra to save the youngsters and the entire town. This is an outstanding model for strategies to combat bullying- speak up, solicit help from friends, stand your ground.

Roaring Book Press, 2013
BEN RIDES ON, by Matt Davies, confronts the discussion more directly. It's very satisfying to read a picture book starring third graders, since most recent releases are trending toward preschool characters and issues. This strikes a strong note about  the age- bike adventures, bullying, making decisions of conscience, and facing responsibility. That all sounds awfully heavy handed, but the text and images are energetic, humorous, and thoroughly appealing without the slightest bit of patronizing or preaching.

As much as I advocate for the power of picture books at any age, many middle grade and young adult novels provide scenarios in which readers can experience and discuss examples of a wide-range of bullying situations.  Booklist Editor Gillian Engberg's feature article offers up an extensive list of titles complete with suggested target ages (not limits, mind you!) and active links to full reviews with sales outlets.

This is a topic that demands the attention of anyone who ever interacts with a child. That means every one of us. Waiting around for a superhero to appear makes no sense when each of us can be one, just by speaking up. Don't make the mistake those silent peers made. Don't be afraid to speak up, to raise the issue and work to change it. Lives are at stake.

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