Also see our selected listings of bullying resources.
The statistics are staggering. More than 13 million students are bullied each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly 160,000 kids stay home from school each day to avoid being bullied. Stories of bullying and its frequently tragic consequences are routinely featured in the news. Bullying has become such an epidemic in our country that it has spawned numerous support and activist groups, as well as awareness campaigns, including National Bullying Prevention Month in October.
With that in mind, PW provides some perspective from experts on the topic, including the role books can play in combating the problem. We also take a look at how some authors and publishers are rallying behind the cause and offer a roundup of recently published books that tackle the issue.
Lauded as a leader in shining the spotlight on bullying, PACER (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights), a Minneapolis-based family support organization, launched the first National Bullying Prevention and Awareness Week in 2006. By 2010 the campaign had grown into National Bullying Prevention Month and now includes a full lineup of awareness-raising events and activities that unite communities across the nation in their anti-bullying efforts.
“I don’t think bullying is any worse than 50 years ago,” says Cynthia Lowen, author and writer/producer for the 2011 documentary film Bully. “But the increased visibility of young people who have taken their own lives because of bullying kicked off a real awareness. Attitudes had become complacent. Bullying was accepted as normal. The tragedies made people step back and say, ‘This is not a normal phenomenon.’ Now that awareness is part of the national consciousness. We all now know there is a problem. The challenge remains, how do we respond?”
James Lecesne, author, actor, activist and founder of the Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT and questioning youth, agrees. “Things changed in 2009,” he says. “In September 2009 there were nine very highly publicized teen suicides. That’s not unusual for a month. But what was unusual is they were all attributed to bullying. The press found something to jump on board, and that has been an incredible, amazing thing.” Lecesne’s story Trevor, about a misunderstood 13-year-old boy who is harassed at school for being different, began as part of Lecesne’s one-man Off-Broadway show and was adapted as a film; it won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short and was the inspiration for the Trevor Project. He has updated the story as a novella, published by Seven Stories Press last month.
Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist and professional speaker, looks back a bit further, but still sees the same shift. “People have often thought that bullying was just ‘kids being kids,’ ” she says. “But then in light of the national attention on incidents like Columbine and kids actually committing suicide, bullying became not just a kids’ issue or a rite of passage.”
Silverman agrees that bullying is an age-old problem, but believes that today’s bullying is “quite different” from generations past. “The hours are different, the supervision is different,” she says. “Now it’s 24/7 bullying access. A rumor concocted online or via social media at 9 p.m. could be sent, liked, tweeted, or changed many times by 3 a.m. It’s already lived a full school day by the middle of the night.” Cyber bullying also adds an “anonymous, covert element,” Silverman says. “You used to know who the bullies were.”
Now that bullying has received more attention, how can that attention be transformed into action? “We’re still figuring out how to effectively respond to this,” says Lowen. “It’s not just zero tolerance. There’s not just one answer. Bullying is deeply ingrained in our culture from the dynamics of parents and families to the social minefield of adolescence to the prejudices of communities.”
Lecesne believes that an essential goal of bullying prevention is to “give kids the tools to make their lives better. Any book or film that gives young people those tools—‘here’s what I did to get through it’—is great.”
Lowen says, “If we don’t understand bullying, we’re just putting out fires for the rest of our lives.” And getting to this understanding is where books can come in. In addition to the facts that some books can offer, Lowen notes, “We need stories and personal narratives that are compelling and move our hearts and minds. We must understand that bullying is connected to the values and norms we establish as a culture.” As one example she believes that the most effective books for young children are not explicitly about bullying, but titles that emphasize positive peer relationships and respectful interactions: “Those stories are providing the foundation for getting at where we really want to be.”
How Publishers Are Getting Involved
As the listing that follows this article suggests, a wide array of books on bullying is available today. There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. Here’s a look at some of the most recent efforts in this arena.
• Random House has an extensive anti-bullying awareness campaign featuring debut middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Knopf, Feb.). The story of a boy with a severe facial deformity who faces bullying when he attends a mainstream school for the first time has received critical praise, landed on bestseller lists, and garnered lots of national attention, especially via social media (see sidebar, p. 25).
•To support the September release Speechless by Hannah Harrington, about a girl who sees her words become the catalyst for a hate crime, Harlequin Teen has partnered with the Jed Foundation’s Love Is Louder movement to create original materials for the book and to conduct an online survey of young women about bullying. Among the findings: 35% of teens turn to books and reading to cope with bullying.
•Simon & Schuster first partnered with GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network) in 2004 to host No Name-Calling Week, a movement inspired by James Howe’s middle grade novel The Misfits (S&S/Atheneum, 2003). In the book, four 12-year-olds, fed up with the years of cruel name-calling and taunting they have endured, decide to run for student council as the “No Name Party” whose platform promises to end to name-calling at school. No Name-Calling Week is observed annually in January and features educational activities aimed at ending this type of bullying. In 2011, Barnes & Noble joined S&S and GLSEN as an official sponsor of No Name-Calling Week. In addition to this effort, S&S has teamed with Cartoon Network for its Stop Bullying Speak Up campaign and Yoursphere’s “I Choose” anti-bullying campaign.
• Long Stride Books notes that its novel True Stories, about cyber bullying, has been used in readin and discussion projects at 19 schools in 11 states. Coteau Books in Saskatchewan was recently awarded an arts grant to highlight its children’s and YA titles about bullying. The publisher mailed 5,000 flyers to schools and additional materials to 100 major school boards and districts. The grant money enabled national advertising as well, and allowed for the development of study guides for the books, which include We Want You to Know: Kids Talk About Bullying by Deborah Ellis and Drummer Girl by Karen Bass. The study guides are available as free downloads.
• In September, Free Spirit Publishing launched its Bully Free Kids line of bullying prevention resources. The first three books in the new line’s Weird series are Weird!; Dare!; and Tough! all by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paula Heaphy. The publisher also has a full line of Bully Free Classroom products for teachers. Among the several anti-bullying titles on Free Spirit’s backlist is Hands Are Not for Hitting, first published in 2000, about children choosing not to hurt others. It remains a perennially strong seller with more than 600,000 copies in print (paperback and board book combined).
• DK is teaming up with WWE star wrestler Mick Foley for the picture book A Most Mizerable Christmas by Foley, illustrated by John Adams. Various WWE personalities appear in the book, teaching a boy known as “the Miz” lessons about not being a bully. Copies of the title will be given away at the WWE’s “Be a STAR” (Show Tolerance and Respect) events. Be a STAR is an anti-bullying alliance cofounded by the Creative Coalition and the WWE.
• The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene, a novel inspired by true events about the tragic consequences of one small town’s homophobia, recently celebrated 40 years in print. Last year Open Road Media published an e-book edition, and this month it launched a documentary-style video campaign featuring Greene talking about the terrible extent to which bullying can be taken, and several other authors offering their thoughts on today’s bullying crisis ). The marketing campaign also incorporates social media outreach including promoted tweets, Facebook posts, and online advertising.
•Sleeping Bear Press capitalized on the educator backgrounds of authors Diane Lang and Michael Buchanan to publicize their 2010 book The Fat Boy Chronicles. Inspired by a true story and written in journal format, the novel follows 14-year-old Jimmy as he enters his freshman year of high school and struggles with obesity, abuse, and isolation. Lang and Buchanan networked with schools and school districts for promotions. The publisher teamed with community organizations like Rotary and the Junior League as well as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Teen Health Connection of Charlotte (N.C.) for collaborative efforts and funding to cover author visits and the purchase of books. A 2010 movie adaptation of the book by Tin Roof Films was screened at various One Book events to promote dialogue and the creation of action steps to stop bullying; the film is currently available on DVD.
• Chrissa, American Girl’s 2009 Girl of the Year, was introduced via a national campaign as the star of two books by Mary Casanova; the nine-year-old experiences bullying as she enters fourth grade at a new school. Chrissa and Chrissa Stands Strong were adapted into a feature film, American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong, available on DVD from HBO Home Entertainment. Also in 2009, American Girl produced a nonfiction companion book, Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way by Patti Kelley Criswell, illustrated by Angela Martini.
• On the younger front, Macmillan Children’s Publishing is crafting the “Be a Friend, Not a Bully” classroom and library campaign, including event kits, posters, and stickers in support of its August 2013 picture book Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook/Porter). An author tour, a parenting ad push, signed prints for booksellers, and a sharable book trailer will be additional components of the campaign.
(For more on Random House and Harlequin Teen's efforts, click here.)
Writers Mine Their Own Histories with Bullying
Numerous authors have indicated that their books were inspired by some personal experience with bullying. Patty Blount says she was moved to write her book Send (Sourcebooks, Sept.) after witnessing the experiences of her son, a victim of bullying in the sixth grade. “I nearly lost my son to suicide,” she says. “He hit puberty early, and his former friends thought it was great fun to play connect-the-dots with his acne, imitate his deep voice, and call him names like Sasquatch and Wolfman because of his body hair.”
Similarly, author Margaret Willey recalled her daughter’s ordeal with bullying in high school to write Four Secrets (Carolrhoda Lab, Oct.), about friends who hatch a revenge plot against a bully that goes horribly wrong. “I still remember vividly the day she tearfully told me, ‘Something really bad is happening to me at school,’ Willey said via e-mail. “I knew that once she had recovered from the experience, I would write about that ‘something bad,’ and about her brave and loyal friends, who basically came to her rescue and who are still her friends today. I hope that my novel will be read as a tribute to the courage and stamina of bullied teens everywhere.”
The Bully Book, a debut novel by Eric Kahn Gale due out from HarperCollins in January, is a semi-autobiographical novel that alternates between passages from a bullying manual (“The Bully Book”) and journal entries from sixth-grade bullying victim Eric Haskins. In an author’s note, Gale calls the book “an account of my life in elementary school through the lens of a mystery novel.” He originally published the title as an e-book on Amazon, where it hit #1 on the Children’s Mystery list and #7 on the Children’s Books list. HarperCollins editorial director Phoebe Yeh, whose son has been a victim of middle-school bullying, made a connection to the book and wanted to work with Gale to edit it and republish it in hardcover.
Meg Medina’s new book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, March 2013), is based on her experiences growing up as the daughter of Cuban immigrants living in Queens, N.Y. She reflects on being bullied: “Years ago, when I was in school, a girl in a rabbit fur jacket cornered me in the schoolyard and announced that one of our school bullies, Jackie, was going to beat me up. What I remember most from that time was loneliness and all the risky choices I made as I embarked on the search for a tough girl shell that could withstand any attack. But as I struggled against the dread of being in school, I became someone else entirely. I hid every talent and interest I had in the hope of appearing fierce and untouchable to Jackie and the rest of the world. It was a struggle to find my identity and inner strength—as a student, as a young woman, as a Latina. I was in a fight for my dignity.”
Authors also bring personal connections to Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance, edited by Rhoda Belleza (Running Press, July), a collection of short fiction by such authors as Kristen Miller and Jennifer Brown. In the anthology Dear Bully, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (HarperCollins, 2011), 70 authors share their personal stories about bullying—from the point of view of victim, perpetrator, or bystander. The book was the brainchild of Kelley and Jones, who had started a Facebook group for authors wishing to connect in the wake of the 2010 suicide of high school student Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass. The group grew to thousands of members in only a few weeks. Dear Bully's release tied into last year's National Bullying Prevention Month, and marketing efforts included a YouTube playlist featuring q&as between readers and authors, a video of authors delivering a Dear Bully message, and various social meida campaigns. A portion of the proceeds are being donated to Stomp Out Bullying.
Heather Brewer (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series, Dutton), who contributed to Dear Bully, has long been outspoken on the issue. “I was terribly bullied as a child, from kindergarten through senior year and beyond,” she says. “My saving grace was the library. I could disappear into a book and feel better. Books saved my life.” When she got a bit older, Brewer found that the bullying became a catalyst for beginning her writing career. “I wrote as a way to feel better about myself,” she recalls, “and I realized I could create worlds that readers could disappear into the way I did.”
In addition to energizing her creative outlet, Brewer’s passion as an anti-bullying advocate continues to manifest itself in activism. She is a dynamic public speaker on the topic and has organized an anti-bullying author conference for October 19, 2013, called Less Than Three (<3), inspired by the emoticon—a “less than” symbol and the number three—that forms a heart, meaning love. Plans are for 16 YA authors, including Brewer, A.S. King, David Levithan, Ellen Hopkins, and Susane Colasanti, to take part.
According to Silverman, books can help in the battle against bullying, but they aren’t a cure-all. “There’s no instant button you can press, and not any one book that will do the trick,” she says. “There has to be an accountability piece," she says. “We all have to commit to this: how am I going to process the information and do something different based on what I’ve read? If a book doesn’t spur specific accountability and action, then it’s not an effective tool—it’s just another good read.”
Also see our selected listings of bullying resources.