May 26, 2018

When Kindness Is Lacking: Facing a Bully

My previous post shared some outstanding picture books about kindness, each featuring young characters who chose to notice, to consider the feelings of others, and to ACT in positive ways. The lead character in each offers realistic examples of the power a single person can wield to make other lives better. 
Empathy is innate, according to some recent studies. (Check out an easy-to-read-and-uplifting report on one study HERE.) It's pretty obvious that encouraging those natural tendencies, modeling intentional kindness, and discussing books like the ones featured  (and others) will foster those human, humane tendencies in young people. It's also pretty obvious that our world would be a better place if all humans of every age displayed those humane, empathetic patterns in daily life. Sadly, it's more than obvious that some people, young and otherwise, have lost or repressed their natural empathetic tendencies to varying degrees. Some not only ignore others in need or pain, instead actively causing others physical or emotional pain.
That's not true of MOST PEOPLE, a truth that is comfortingly presented in Michael Leannah's book, discussed in this previous post. 
And yet...
Even a single bully can cause others to feel fear, depression, or even lead to suicide or violence. There are countless picture books on this subject used by parents, teachers, and others. Some are featured HERE. As a teacher I've shared many of the recommended titles, and as a blogger I've reviewed a few, HERE
Owlkids Book, Inc. 2018

This post  will shine a well-deserved spotlight on a recently released picture book, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT written by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Carey Sookocheff. On the face of it, so to speak, it merits our attention for its powerful cover. The dull-gray tones, simple line drawings, and obvious situation makes the subject matter evident. In case there's any doubt, the back cover reveals an explicit scene: an intentionally side-eyed mean-girl is bullying a slump-shouldered and sad-eyed boy. The simplified line art and body postures, including that of the bystanding girls on the cover, reveal a universal bullying situation. 
In a sense, this stark approach is counterintuitive, lacking the spontaneous appeal of bright colors, charming animal characters, or other enticements to open and read on about an important topic. Instead, this book declares its topic before a single page is turned. The title suggests a powerful dramatic tension, suggesting escalating meanness and/or a full-out confrontation. 
Neither is the case. Nor does the book unfold in traditional text form. Instead, the unnamed narrator controls the story in unique, script-like format:
"Why I Don't Want to Go to School Today:
Bully B.
What Bully B Does at School Today:
Blocks my way.
Asks me questions that aren't really questions, like: 'Why are you so weird?'
What Her Friends Do:
What Everyone Else Does:

From that first page, the bullied boy struggles with hiding his situation from his mom, seeking comfort in his books and from his unconditionally loving and sensitive dog. One day his mom reads his face rather than his answer about how his day was ("fine"). Together they spend time in simple ways, experiencing comfort and fun together. Then his mom gently leads a conversation about bullies, options, and potential resolutions. This is all revealed in that same child-controlled monologue. The transitions leading to a resolution are entirely realistic, providing a template for others to use in similar circumstances while thoroughly  reinforcing the character of a quirky (not weird) boy and a compelling story.

I do have a few concerns about this outstanding picture book. The line drawings are a bit of a double-edged sword. Throughout page after page of  dull-toned spreads, the boy is washed from head to toe in pale blue and the girl in green. That may avoid racial identity, but the straight-hair, straight-featuered characters read very Caucasian to me. In the final spread each character, including some incidental classmates, are colored in traditional ways (clothing, hair, backpacks, etc.) and one boy is a person of color. I realize the intentional symbolism of the narrator's perceptions regarding his worldview until the problem is resolved, but I hope it is discussed with young readers as intentional.  On the plus side, the majority of "bullies" in picture books are males (or "male-types"), so this female antagonist is a welcome dose of reality. 

Here's hoping you'll get your hands on these books and share them widely. Can we really live with the fact that humans are BORN with the right instincts and the adults (or screen images) in their lives are not actively strengthening and supporting those instincts? I can't.

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