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October 2011 Archives

Bullying & Books


Imagine this conversation: "What did you do in school today?" "Reading, gym, Spanish, bullying."  

Anti-bullying is the latest curriculum addition, becoming mandated in school districts around the country.

Everyone grows up being bullied in some way. Teased about clothing, looks, speech, ethnicity, you name it.  Many believe it's a rite of passage, a part of growing up that kids need to deal with themselves, often considered character building.

That was until the Internet replaced the playground as the venue for bullies to flaunt their taunts. Cyberbullying, the harassment through social networking, instant messaging and texting via cell phones, exploded, and has been linked to many teenage suicides.

October is National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month.  I imagine superintendents and principals are sending memos to staff, requesting that lesson plans indicate how bullying will be addressed. Teachers are trying to figure out how to incorporate bullying into their already packed curriculums.  On top of juggling differentiated instruction, increased class size, non-English speakers, and of course, test preparation, they're grasping for materials to bring bullies to bulletin boards.

Meanwhile publishers and consultants are having a field day. Like the no smoking and anti-drug campaigns of old, bullying birthed a barrage of books, programs, and ready-made scripts for teachers to buy, often with their own money, to satisfy new curriculum demands.

I wish I could tell every teacher who opts to purchase anti-bullying products to turn to literature instead.  Scan the school and town libraries for titles that deal with bullying, often without mentioning the word.  Teach tolerance through fairy tales; discuss characters and motivation, problems and solutions.

I asked a librarian from a local college for resources and she sent me four pages. My local town library prepared a bully bibliography, "Bullies are a Pain in the Brain," a list of fiction and non-fiction books in the collection.

Literature creates empathy in ways pre-packaged, ready-made materials won't. I recently saw a production of Shakespeare's Othello. Is there any better example of a bully than Iago?  Imagine the discussions in high school, comparing Iago to current day villains, dissecting what makes someone evil and how to respond.

Reading won't in itself diminish bullying. In no way do I propose that schools ignore how the abuse of technology transmits rumors and torments children.  Weave bullying discussions into curriculums - bullies in history and literature provide ample places to begin.

Here's a small sampling:

Picture Books: A librarian I know calls them "Everyone" books; they're not just for little kids.
Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bootner
Willy the Champ by Anthony Browne
Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie DePaola
Goggles by Ezra Jack Keats
Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester
The Ant Bully by John Nickle
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman
Middle Grades:
 by Judy Blume
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Roxie and the Hooligans by Phyllis R. Naylor
Joshua T. Bates In Trouble Again 
by Susan Shreve
Attack of the Killer Fishsticks by Paul Zindel
Young Adult: As a former 8th grade teacher, I loved that there were books written for teen readers.  Authors for young adults have addressed bullying for decades.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Tangerine by Edward Blor
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier 
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
The Skin I'm In
 by Sharon Flake
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
Shooter by Walter Dean Myers
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
First Test by Tamora Pierce
All the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling

For more titles and authors: www.librarything.com/tag/bullying and other searches. And be sure to ask your favorite librarian.  (my town library, Summit, NJ).

What do Huck Finn, Jem Finch, and Harry Potter have in common?
They're three teenage boys in books that have been banned or challenged.
It's Banned Book Week, the American Library Association's annual recognition of censorship of printed material, particularly books in public schools and town libraries.
We Americans like to think that censorship happens elsewhere, in regimes that don't tolerate freedom of expression.
Think again.  Attempts to control national reading trace back to the Civil War and continue to present day.
Who are the censors? Anyone with enough clout to be heard. Parents, school boards, editors, publishers, politicians and government officials. Anyone who feels that a particular book threatens their beliefs and lifestyles; anyone who objects to what they deem incendiary. 
Not all challenges lead to banning, but many do. Among the reasons: profanity, witchcraft, violence, sex, defiance of authority, science fiction and fantasy.
Then there's Tango, the penguin. Abandoned as an egg by his mother, New York City's Central Park Zookeepers gave the egg to a pair of male Chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo to hatch and raise.  The 2005 picture book, And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell  and Justin Richardson, chronicles their story, and has been ALA's top challenged book for five years. 
In an age where we worry that people aren't reading more than a text message or a tweet, where bookstores are closing one after another, what could be more important than promoting the freedom to read?
I credit my own growth as a reader to the books my friends and I surreptitiously passed to each other under the desks in 7th grade social studies class.  I still remember those titles, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a censored perennial, among them.
As a teacher, I encouraged free choice in reading and taught a "Banned Book Week" unit.  As a parent, I allowed total freedom of choice in reading, even as I cringed when my very young sons insisted I read the adventures of He-Man and She-Ra in the Masters of the Universe series endlessly.  My daughter only wanted picture books about dogs.    A friend of mine's daughter only read books with the word "cat" in the title.  These children, all adults now, became avid readers, consuming titles across genres.
While browsing in a bookstore in Manhattan, I overheard a woman lament to her friend, "My grandchildren don't know  from libraries; my daughter just orders books for them."   Too bad for those kids. They won't experience the joy of browsing, of discovering a book or author or subject they might never learn about.
The next day, I received a huge box of children's' books from my graduate school mentor as gifts for my grandchildren. He wrote: "I hope your grandkids grow up reading real books."
Judy Blume, author of many books for young readers and herself subject to censorship, wrote:  "What I worry about most is the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don't speak out for themselves, all they get for required reading will be the most bland books available. And instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding the novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object." (Editor: Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers Simon & Schuster, 1999.)
To raise readers, protect the freedom to read. 

About Me

Lisa Winkler was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continues to write for professional journals. She has written several study guides for Penguin Books and writes for Education Update, a newspaper based...Read More

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