Bullying: The Elephant in the School Yard | Focus On

K-12 resources about bullying

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Every week it seems we hear of another incident of cyberbullying, or another school where hazing is nearly institutionalized, or tragically, another young life forfeited after repeated taunting and torment. Parents, schools, government agencies, and related organizations are all scrambling to find ways to address the issue that go beyond simple reactionary punishments.

No one believes that bullying is a problem isolated to teens and tweens. Children tease one another from a very young age; they discover power by rejecting someone or by taking another’s toys. Adults are hardly immune. By addressing bullying behavior early on, at every grade level, and in a variety of ways, educators have a better chance of helping youngsters to develop a compassionate community and become empathetic individuals.

Picture books provide a thoughtful, provocative way to engage students in conversation and can be used to bring together disparate age groups to talk about the same topic. From simply sharing a story about being different to reading a book that directly addresses an ongoing issue at a specific school, adults can challenge students to think creatively about how they treat one another and what they see happening around them.

Middle grade and young adult novels offer comfort food for older students looking to find solace and hope while reading about others who may be experiencing similar difficulties. Readers latch on to characters in a beloved story, cheer their triumphs, and share their troubles. Regardless of the students’ ages, it’s important for them to know that they don’t have to suffer alone and that there are adults in their lives who can help.

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Picture Books

BOTTNER, Barbara. Bootsie Barker Bites. illus. by Peggy Rathman. Putnam. 1992. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-399-22125-5. K-Gr 3–Bootsie Barker runs roughshod over the hapless narrator every time they have to play together in this classic tale of not playing nice. With some creativity and bravery, the child finds a way to give the bully a taste of her own medicine. Super-bright cartoon illustrations offer a lighthearted foil to Bootsie’s bad behavior.

DEPAOLA, Tomie. Oliver Button Is a Sissy. illus. by author. Harcourt. 1979. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-15-257852-7. K-Gr 4–Oliver stays true to himself despite being called a sissy, and by doing so wins the respect of the name-callers and naysayers. dePaola’s signature illustrations in neutral blues and browns complement the gentle tone. An excellent starting point for conversations about gender roles and expectations with many age groups.

FLEISCHMAN, Paul. Weslandia. illus. by Kevin Hawkes. Candlewick. 1999. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-0006-8. Gr 1-4–As a means of escaping his real-life tormentors, inventive young Wesley uses his backyard to grow an unusual crop, create a new civilization, and eventually win over those who previously thought him strange. Colorful, full-page illustrations supplement the fantasylike feel of the story and bring Weslandia to life.

HENKES, Kevin. Chrysanthemum. illus. by author. Greenwillow. 1991. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-688-09699-1. PreS-Gr 3–Over the first few days of school, Chrysanthemum’s self-esteem ebbs and flows as she’s teased for her long name. Supportive parents and an admired music teacher convince the sweet little mouse and her classmates that her name is, in fact, unique. Expressive watercolor drawings bring Chrysanthemum’s emotions to life. Audio version and bilingual English/Spanish DVD available from Weston Woods.

KEATS, Ezra Jack. Goggles. illus. by author. Viking. 1998. (original ed Macmillan, 1969; o.p.). Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-670-88062-1. K-Gr 3–With illustrations that mix painting and collage, Keats offers up an urban story of younger children finding a way to outsmart older, bullying kids. This classic tale provides plenty of discussion points about avoiding conflict and ways to use imagination to bypass being a victim. Audio version available from Weston Woods.

LIONNI, Leo. Swimmy. illus. by author. Knopf. 1963. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-394-81713-2. PreK-Gr 2–Iconic watercolor paintings illustrate the story of a lone black fish in the vast ocean. When Swimmy stumbles upon a school of small red fish living in fear of the larger fish that terrorize the seas, he uses courage and ingenuity to devise a plan to free his new friends.

LUDWIG, Trudy. Just Kidding. illus. by Adam Gustavson. Tricycle. 2006. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-58246-163-2. Gr 1-3–Acrylic paintings with interesting perspectives detail this account of a young boy being teased with the constant addendum of “just kidding” from the bully. His father and brother, and eventually a teacher, help him find ways to be strong. Slightly bibliotherapeutic, the story highlights why saying “just kidding” is not an appropriate excuse for teasing.

MCCARTHY, Meghan. Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas. illus. by author. Knopf. 2007. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-375-82940-6; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-375-92940-3.

Gr 1-4–Famous for having sand kicked in his face, young Charles Atlas embarked on a mission to be stronger and changed his life. Full-page acrylic paintings lend a quasi-comic-book feel to this inspirational tale for underdogs everywhere that encourages action over acceptance of difficult circumstances.

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MEDDAUGH, Susan. Martha Walks the Dog. illus. by author. Houghton. 1998. Tr $15. ISBN 978-0-395-90494-7.

PreK-Gr 2–When talking dog Martha uses her words (“You mangy mongrel”) to hold back a neighborhood bully dog, she is met with failure. However, the kind words of a mimicking parrot (“Good dog! Bob is soooooo handsome!”) have a soothing effect on the ruffian. Illustrations filled with movement and expression round out the storytelling.

MYERS, Christopher. Wings. illus. by author. Scholastic. 2000. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-590-03377-0. Gr 2-5–Told from the perspective of a compassionate classmate of a boy with wings, this unique tale shows how fear of the unfamiliar can breed teasing and shunning. It also demonstrates the power of one person to uplift a victim and change the perspective of others. Outstanding cut-paper collage artwork makes the presentation soar.

NAYLOR, Phyllis Reynolds. King of the Playground. illus. by Nola Langner Malone. S & S/Atheneum. 1991. Tr ISBN 978-0-689-31558-9. Gr 1-3–With practical, predictable advice from Dad, Kevin finds a way to stand up to the playground bully and maybe make a friend, too. Homey, comfortable illustrations reflect the gentle tone of this story that reminds young students to ask a trusted adult for help when the going gets rough.

O’NEILL, Alexis. The Recess Queen. illus. by Laura Huliska-Beith. Scholastic. 2002. RTE $15.95. ISBN 978-0-439-20637-2. K-Gr 3–Mean Jean is the queen of recess. That is until a new girl appears on the scene, oblivious to the social dynamic around her. Showing no fear, only friendliness, Katie Sue shakes things up for everyone, including Mean Jean. Neon-hued cartoon illustrations add to the enjoyment of this fun-filled story.

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BUTLER, Dori Hillestad. The Truth About Truman School. Albert Whitman. 2008. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-8075-8095-0. Gr 5-8–An online newspaper started by middle schoolers Zebby and Amr inadvertently sparks serious cyberbullying when anonymous posts attack a popular girl. The story is told from a variety of student perspectives and voices, and readers will find someone to identify with as it unfolds.

CLEMENTS, Andrew. Jake Drake, Bully Buster. illus. by Amanda Harvey. S & S/Aladdin. 2001. RTE $14. ISBN 978-0-689-83917-7; pap. $3.99. ISBN 978-0-689-83880-4. Gr 2-4–Jake, a fourth-grader and former “bully magnet,” humorously recounts how he diffused SuperBully Link Baxter in the second grade. Paired with Link on a school project, he discovers the bully’s secret fear and the two boys work out a realistic truce. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

ELLIS, Deborah. We Want You to Know: Kids Talk About Bullying. Coteau. 2010. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-1-55050-417-0. Gr 5 Up–True stories from young people between the ages of 9 and 19 provide a thought-provoking look at bullying as it happens in real life. Written in the first person, some with real names and photos, the stories are organized around perceived causes of bullying. Thoughtful questions to jump-start conversation appear at the end of each account.

EMERSON, Kevin. Carlos Is Gonna Get It. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-439-93525-8. Gr 6-8–Seventh-grader Trina has mixed feelings about the “prank” that some of her peers are about to pull on Carlos, a special-needs student whose quirky behavior drives them all crazy. This thoughtful account encourages students to step up and do the right thing in the face of group pressure.

FOX, Debbie & Allan L. Beane. Good-Bye Bully Machine. illus. by Debbie Fox. Free Spirit. 2009. Tr $12.99. ISBN 978-1-57542-326-5; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-1-57542-321-0. K-Gr 5–The authors compare bullying to being around a powerful and dangerous machine. They talk about how it makes one feel and why kids hurt others, and offer suggestions on how to “unplug” it. Full-page collage artwork, different fonts and type sizes, and an easy-to-read text make this a book of solid advice that is unintimidating and helpful.

GOING, K.L. The Liberation of Gabriel King. Putnam. 2005. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-399-23991-5. Gr 4-7–It’s 1976 in Georgia and racial tension pervades. Soon to be fifth-grader Gabriel King is afraid of many things, especially bullies. His best friend decides to liberate him from his fears by making him face them, but she has her own worries, including town bigots and the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Audio version available from Listening Library.

JORDAN-FENTON, Christy & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Fatty Legs. illus. by Liz Amini-Holmes. Annick. 2010. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-247-8; pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-1-55451-246-1. Gr 4-7–This brief memoir chronicles the years that Olemaun, an Inuit girl, spent at a church-run school in the Arctic Circle. The bullies in her life were not her peers; they were some of the nuns charged with her care. Plucky and brave, Olemaun found her own way to subvert their abuse. Distinct, expressive artwork appears throughout.

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KIMMEL, Haven. Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House. illus. by Peter Brown. S & S/Atheneum. 2008. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-689-87402-4. Gr 3-5–Life isn’t easy for quirky third-grader Kaline. His father is gone, and Kaline wonders if he’s the reason. On top of that, bullies make school nearly unbearable. A rich fantasy life helps the boy navigate his real-world troubles and find a path that works for him.

KOSS, Amy Goldman. Poison Ivy. Roaring Brook/A Deborah Brodie Bk. 2006. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-118-8. Gr 6 Up–Repeated torment of a classmate at the hands of three girls is viewed through the lens of a mock trial held in a social-studies class. Eight distinct student voices share the story that is rich with discussion topics about the whys of bullying, how students view one another, and the roles that adults play.

MYERS, Laurie. Surviving Brick Johnson. illus. by Dan Yaccarino. Clarion. 2000. Tr $15. ISBN 978-0-395-98031-6. Gr 3-5–Fifth-grader Alex gets caught imitating the new kid, Brick Johnson, and anxiety sets in as he imagines all kinds of retaliation from a supposed bully. Brick turns out to be a nice guy, and Alex learns a valuable lesson about making assumptions. A fun, lighthearted look at bullies for younger or reluctant readers.

ROY, James. Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully. Houghton Harcourt, 2009. Tr $12.95. ISBN 978-0-547-15263-9. Gr 4-7–Sixth-grader Max sees himself more as a prankster than a bully, never taking full responsibility for his actions even though they result in hurt feelings and appropriate punishments. While not fully redeemed, Max does acknowledge that he can change. Notebook jottings interspersed throughout will draw in “Wimpy Kid” fans.

VAN DRAANEN, Wendelin. Secret Identity. illus. by Brian Biggs. (Shredderman Series). Knopf/Borzoi. 2004. Tr $12.95. ISBN 978-0-375-82351-0; PLB $14.95. ISBN 978-0-375-92351-7. Gr 3-5–Wishing to expose the bullying behavior of a classmate, fifth-grader Nolan creates a secret identity and an anonymous website that has unintended consequences for himself and the bully. Reluctant readers will find much to enjoy in this first of a series about Shredderman and his efforts to make the world a better place. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.

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For Kids...

Kids Against Bullying. www.pacerkidsagainstbullying.org. Pacer Center/National Center for Bullying Prevention. (Accessed 12/22/2010) K-Gr 5—Kid-friendly, but not condescending, this accessible website offers plenty for kids to explore, read, and share on the topic of bullying. Short, effective videos explain, “What Bullying Is,” “What You Can Do,” and “How Bullying Feels.”

For Teens...

Teens Against Bullying. www.pacerteensagainstbullying.org. Pacer Center/National Center for Bullying Prevention. (Accessed 12/22/2010) Gr 6 Up—With an edgy, updated look, this interactive website for teens includes stories, resources, and a place to share their own experiences with bullying. Chock-full of statistics and facts to jump-start conversation.

For Educators...

Teaching Tolerance. www.tolerance.org. Southern Poverty Law Center. Montgomery, AL. (Accessed 12/22/2010) This resource provides activities, lessons, and articles for educators at all grade levels on a variety of issues around justice and tolerance in schools, including bullying.

Middle and High School

ALEXIE, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. illus. by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-01368-0. Gr 8 Up–Smart, irreverent Junior relates his escape from the familiar bullies and desperate future that await him on his Spokane Indian reservation. When he attends the local public school 22 miles away, he finds another world. Cartoons and razor-sharp wit enhance the humor that belies the seriousness of the subject matter. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

CORMIER, Robert. The Chocolate War. Knopf. 1974. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-394-82805-3. Gr 9 Up–This classic of the psychological drama genre depicts the hauntingly chilling story of high school student Jerry who refuses to participate in the chocolate-selling fundraiser at school. Physical and emotional bullying is meted out by a secret society that is silently condoned by the adults, leaving few options for the teen. Audio version available from Listening Library.

HOWE, James. Totally Joe. S & S/Atheneum/Ginee Seo Bks. 2005. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-689-83957-3. Gr 7 Up–Joe is gay and in the seventh grade, a difficult combination. He deals with family issues, a first romantic relationship with a not-quite-out boy, and changing friendships. Joe’s voice is both real and funny, ensuring accessibility to a wide range of students, male or female, gay or straight.

JACOBS, Tom. Teen Cyberbullying Investigated: Where Do Your Rights End and Consequences Begin? Free Spirit. 2010. pap. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-57542-339-5. Gr 8 Up–Following a general discussion of cyberbullying, this collection of landmark court cases explains the scenario, asks readers how they would have decided the case, and then gives the court decision and shows how it affects teens. A timely and valuable addition for general information and discussion.

KOJA, Kathe. Buddha Boy. Farrar/Frances Foster Bks. 2003. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-374-30998-5. Gr 9 Up–This spare novel highlights a relationship between Justin, neither popular nor social outcast, and Jinsen, labeled “Buddha Boy” by other students for his monklike ways. Jinsen is repeatedly teased and bullied by other students while Justin fumes in silence, afraid to take a stand. This is an interesting look at bullying from an observer’s point of view. Audio version available from Full Cast Audio.

KORMAN, Gordon. Schooled. Hyperion. 2007. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-5692-3. Gr 7 Up–The social dynamics of middle school are spelled out from many different points of view, including students, teachers, and social workers, as 13-year-old Cap Anderson learns to negotiate the eighth grade. His cluelessness about the world, stemming from life on a commune and homeschooling, is a perfect foil to the jaded, sometimes cynical students around him. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

PETERS, Julie Anne. By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. Hyperion/Disney. 2010. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-1618-9. Gr 9 Up–Years of protracted bullying have left Daelyn desperate to die. The story picks up after her last suicide failure, and she is marking time until she can try again. Through a mysterious website for “completers,” she slowly tells her story. This is a brutally honest look at the effects that long-term bullying can have on one person.

PIXLEY, Marcella. Freak. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa Bks. 2007. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-374-32453-7. Gr 7 Up–Miriam, 12, bookish, and a little bit weird, is brought to the brink by relentless bullying from her peers and abandonment by her sister. The powder keg of middle school brings about a moment of crisis in which Miriam finds her strength and a way through the pain and hurt. Tense and provocative.

PROSE, Francine. Bullyville. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-057497-0; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-057498-7. Gr 9 Up–After losing his father in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, Bart attends prestigious Baileywell, which is infamously known for the bullying behavior of its students. Things come to a head for Bart, and he seeks revenge, putting into motion a series of events that lead to better days.

Jody Kopple is a Librarian at Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA.

Media Picks By Phyllis Mandell

Bullies Never Win. DVD. 11:05 min. with tchr’s. guide online. Spoken Arts. 2010. ISBN 0-8045-8130-4. $50; CD with hardcover book, ISBN 0-8045-4210-2. $29.95. Gr 1-3–Brenda the Bully berates Jessica whenever she does something well in this tale (S & S, 2010) by Margaret Cuyler. Jessica takes the teasing to heart, changing her clothes, hiding her homework, quitting kickball, and eating alone to avoid criticism. When Jessica finally stands up to Brenda, the girl backs off. Other solutions are also presented to deal with the problem.

Bully Bystanders: You Can Make a Difference. DVD. 17 min. with tchr’s. guide. Human Relations Media. 2010. ISBN 978-1-55548-876-5. $139.95. Gr 7 Up— Jason’s rule of survival in high school is mind your own business. On the bus ride to school, in the classroom, and in the cafeteria, Jason watches as a classmate is verbally harassed, excluded, and the target of cyberbullying. When he hears that she attempted suicide, he imagines, via dramatizations, how it could have been prevented if he had stepped in.

The Power Trip: Bullying in School. DVD. 20 min. with tchr’s. guide. Human Relations Media. 2006. ISBN 1-55548-006-6. $119.95. Gr 5-8 A diverse group of teens speak about their experiences as victims of bullying or as bullies, and dramatizations present different types of bullying. A trainer discusses the problem with a group of teens and has them participate in role-playing activities.

Stop Bullying…Take a Stand. DVD. 30 min. Prod. by In the Mix. Dist. by Castleworks. 2005. ISBN 1-931843-95-3. $69.95. Gr 5-9–A former Miss America, a victim of bullying in high school, hosts this program about being verbally harassed during her freshman year. In another segment, an AOL official explains how to stop cyberbullying. Viewers also learn how high school peer educators worked with middle school students to produce an antibullying DVD.

Taking a Stand: The Bullying Prevention Series. 3 DVDs. 18 min. ea. Prod. by Meridian Education. Dist. by Films Media Group. 2006. ISBN 1-4213-4711-0. $269.85 ser. Includes: Bullies; Cyberbullying; Bully Girls. Gr 7 Up–Like the bullies it portrays, this series pulls no punches. The most powerful video, Bullies, opens with the male narrator linking headlines from Columbine and other school shootings to students who turned violent in response to being victims of bullying. The other titles cover bullying prevention programs, interview victims of bullying, present related vignettes, explain cyberbullying, and more.

Wise Owl Bully Stopper Kit (Series). 3 DVDs. range: 10-13 min. with tchr’s. guide, posters, activity cards. Human Relations Media. 2006. $329.95 ser., $99.95 ea. Includes: Wise Owl Says: Don’t Be a Bully Bystander (ISBN 1-55548-097-7); Wise Owl Says: I See a Bully (ISBN 1-55548-098-5); Wise Owl Says: You Can Stop a Bully (ISBN 1-55548-099-8). K-Gr 2–Wise Owl, an animated character, hosts and narrates this live-action series about bullying. Viewers learn how to recognize a bully, coping techniques, and the importance of helping those who are being bullied. In a series of vignettes, children are shown bullying and being bullied.

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