Bullied when she was a girl, author and illustrator Frieda Wishinsky got payback by using her childhood persecutor as source material for her books. So Long Stinky Queen (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2000) is about two elementary school students who turn the tables on a bossy classmate, while You’re Mean, Lily Jean! (Albert Whitman, 2011), shows how a little girl finds a funny, effective way to stand up to her older sister’s overbearing new friend.
Wishinsky, the author and illustrator of over 60 picture books, says that her experience of being bullied taught her the importance of asserting herself. One of several authors participating in “Bullying in Books for Youth,” a New York Public Library Children’s Literary Salon on October 20, she advises using humor to outsmart bullies, much as her characters have done.
Authors Paul Griffin, Madeline George, and others on the panel, which coincides with National Bullying Prevention Month, discussed their personal encounters with cruel classmates, the healing power of books, and their advice to young people today—the bulliers along with the bullied.
Like Wishinsky, author Susane Colasanti drew from her own experiences when writing her semi-autobiographical novel Keep Holding On (Viking, 2012) about an abused girl who is teased and taunted by cruel classmates. “My purpose with every book is to reach out to teens and help them feel less alone,” she said.
Moderator Betsy Bird, NYPL youth material specialist and School Library Journal blogger, observed that current books often give the topic nuanced treatment by blurring the lines between bully and victim or by depicting perpetrators sympathetically. For instance, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers (Scholastic, 2012), about two boys who take revenge on their tormenter with a series of pranks that soon become far worse than the original bullying.
Others concurred that the persecutor/victim divide is not always so clear. Paul Griffin, who has worked with incarcerated and at-risk teens since 1989, observed that bullies themselves are often victims of abuse. His own young adult novel, Stay with Me (Dial, 2011), includes a scene where a persecuted boy lashes back at his attacker, becoming a victimizer himself.
Similarly, author Colasanti imbued the antagonist of Keep Holding On (Viking, 2012) with a complex backstory and motivation for her malicious actions. Like Griffin, she feels that books showing bullies as well-developed, realistic characters, rather than one-dimensional villains, are much more powerful.
The authors also touched on how books can lead to positive changes in the lives of their readers. Griffin described an experience with a troubled teen during a school visit. One student responded enthusiastically when Griffin read a passage depicting a graphic act of brutality from one of his novels. Griffin learned that the teen was being severely bullied and was on the brink of violently retaliating. According to Griffin, “That kid that day needed to hear that scene” in order to voice his problems—bibliotherapy in action—and the author was able to ensure he received the support he needed.
George’s novel, Looks (Viking, 2008), about the unlikely bond between two outsiders—a silent overweight girl and a sharp-tongued anorexic poet—may provide therapeutic value of a different sort, she suggested. The book’s ambiguous ending offers only a “very slender thread of hope” that life will improve for her protagonists, she said. Panelists agreed that starkly realistic, honest works like this with uncertain resolution often resonate most with teens, as they did with George when she was a young adult.
Participants concurred that the best way for young people to cope with bullying is by having the courage to reach out to others. Griffin advocated getting young people together to discuss their problems, and Wishinsky agreed: “Don’t be that isolated kid, get a friend. If you can give anyone advice, it’s get a friend…so you’re not alone.”
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