The last three books I have read have been for the Armchair Cybils challenge, and they have all been different variations on a theme: that students who are different in some way are subject to being bullied, and the best antidote a bullied child can have is a true friend. Having never been harrassed by a bully for extended periods of time, I can’t say whether or not this is a realistic solution or merely a happily-ever-after, bookish one. This post isn’t so much about the reality of bullying as it is the approaches the authors I’ve read have taken. I’m also noting that this is apparently a huge theme in middle grade fiction, so parents, take note.
The first book I read, Camo Girl (linked to my initial review, so click for more details), is perhaps the most interestingly-written of the three I read. I found myself really drawn to Ella’s voice in this story; I would almost call this one a page-turner. It is also the one with that illuminates real, life-sized problems: Ella has a physical condition that causes others to mistreat her; her friend, Z, has some serious issues, including homelessness and an increasing lack-of-grasp on reality; Ella lives with her grandmother while her mother works, with her mother “visiting” home during her off time; Ella’s mother and grandmother have a sometimes strained relationship that is realistically depicted; everyone in the family still mourns, in her own individual way, the death of Ella’s dad; Ella’s grandmother has a real penchant (addiction, maybe?) for gambling. I also like that Ella’s “savior” in this story, a newcomer to her school named Bailey, finds the whole Ella and Z mess very confusing, as it would be in real life, yet he tries to be kind to everyone. Although the problems depicted in the story are extreme, I think this is the most realistic of all the novels I’ve read about bullying.
Hound Dog True (linked to my review, again) is at the other end of the spectrum from Camo Girl, but I like it, too. The protagonist in Hound Dog True has also been bullied, but hers is for a more subtle, less obvious reason: she is a smart, very quiet girl who loves to write. Linda Urban writes in such a way that the whole bullying situation is realistically depicted as complicated–Mattie is bullied by a girl who is depicted as not very smart, and likely even unpopular herself. Mattie suffers from extreme shyness and complete dread of social situations, to the point of debilitation. This one is quirky, too, with somewhat unbelievable characters like Mattie’s uncle, a school custodian named Potluck. It’s beautifully written, though, and while I’m not sure it will appeal to a wide audience, I think it might be a good fit for introspective children like Mattie.
Last I read Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur, and of the three, this is the one in which the characters seem the most normal. I’m not sure this is a compliment, though, at least in a bookish sense. Elise, the middle school student in this book, was orphaned as a young child and has had the good fortune to grow up as the only child of her doting aunt and uncle. However, life takes a turn for the worse as she approaches her twelfth birthday: middle school is not only no fun, it’s hard, too; her new, middle school eyes see her best friend, Franklin, in an unflattering light; she isn’t sure where she fits in: with Franklin, playing in the woods all day long and fighting imaginary battles, or with the girls at school who dress up and act older, all of a sudden. Amanda, one such girl at school, torments and bullies her by squashing her lunch intentionally in their shared locker every day. All of this makes Elise want to bury her head under her covers and never get out of bed. However, things begin changing when she discovers a key, which, as it turns out, unlocks one of the locked rooms upstairs in Uncle Hugh’s barn. One room leads to another, and these rooms hold the secret to Elise’s past and possibly her future, if she decides to allow what they reveal to help her change. This book has a lot going on in it emotionally, with the additional theme of loss a prevalent factor. Elise isn’t always likeable, which is actually a strength of the story–she’s mean to Franklin and doesn’t really understand why; she tries to be cool like the other kids, at the cost of almost losing her best friend. However, in my opinion this story lacks the polish of the first two. Kids might just like it better, though, for its more straightforward plot. (Wendy Lamb Books, 2011)
In all three books, the idea is that each child has to find out who she really is and be that person. It’s interesting to me that the protagonist in each book is female, and the bullies in two of the three are female as well. As a homeschooling parent, I tend to look at certain issues and think of them as”school problems,” but let’s be honest here: bullying happens in lots of places besides school–church (oh, yes, it does!), extracurricular activities, clubs, sports teams, etc. Any one of this trio of books could provide a vehicle for opening a conversation about this touchy subject with children, and that’s a good thing. It’s not my favorite topic, to say the least, but these three books do it well (in varying degrees), and so I give them all three a Highly Recommended. (Now I’m off to bury my nose in some good ol’ historical fiction. . . )