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Children's books on bullying

Judy Blume, author of

Judy Blume, author of "Blubber" and many other children's favorites, attending the LA Times Festival of Books at the USC Campus in Los Angeles. (April 21, 2012) Credit: AP

Bullying is a hard topic to pin down. We know when we are being bullied, but do we recognize when someone else is? We are against bullying, but how can we get rid of it? The tendency to bully is difficult to separate from the tendency of people to create a social order: some on top, some on the bottom; someone on top, someone on the bottom. Do we think the social order doesn't, or shouldn't, exist? Do we think individuals naturally rise or sink, according to their abilities? Do we think the world of children can be more fair and kind than the world of adults?

Classics of young-adult fiction have given generations of kids insight into bullying. In Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War" (1974, ages 12 and older), a secret society rules a school by terror, and Judy Blume's "Blubber" (1986, ages 8 and older) tells of one nasty remark that snowballs.

Books about cliques, especially about the shifting sands of mean-girl culture (like Courtney Summers' "Some Girls Are," 2010, ages 12 and older) abound. There are countless books on misfits and social rejection; "Wonder," last year's much discussed book by R.J. Palacio for ages 8 and older, centers on a child with an extreme physical deformity. But the purest expression of bullying concerns kids who are singled out for no reason other than the group's thirst for a scapegoat. Brock Cole's "The Goats" (1987, ages 12 and older) takes place at a summer camp, where, by tradition, one boy and one girl are marooned on an island, all in supposedly good fun.

Imagining the bully's point of view is one way of trying to get at the root of the problem. Last year's "Scrawl," by Mark Shulman (for ages 12 and up), takes the form of the bully's notebook, written in detention. The narrator emerges as a smart, misunderstood kid, which makes for an interesting novel but not a satisfactory answer to common cruelty.

"The Bully Book" (ages 8-12) by Eric Kahn Gale goes further than to imagine the bully's thinking: It posits a middle-school mastermind who has codified "How to Make Trouble Without Getting in Trouble, Rule the School, and Be the Man." This compelling novel adds another dimension to the discussion by letting its story bleed into the adult world. The author gives the creepy how-to manual a history at the school. Whether bully or grunt, over time, middle-school students grow up; they eventually may become the adults in charge.

One of the themes in the current public discussion of bullying is the lasting effect of bullying on those who have been humiliated -- as well as the ease with which the bullies minimize or forget what happened. Meg Medina turns this around in "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" (ages 12 and older), a novel set in a multifarious Latin community in Queens. When Piddy Sanchez changes schools, she is targeted by a tough girl she has never met or spoken to. This is a portrait of how senseless harassment can make a good kid's world fall apart, but also how a strong immigrant drive can buoy a family.

Even picture books are approaching the topic in hopes of bringing early awareness. Jacqueline Woodson's "Each Kindness" (ages 5-8) poignantly follows the thoughts of a girl who rebuffs the advances of a new student. The newcomer's poverty makes her stand out. Only when the new girl disappears from school does the narrator realize she did wrong. Although it's a harsh picture of the guilt a young child may feel, can't living with the knowledge that we have wronged someone serve as a reminder to be kinder in the future? It's among the few practical outcomes these books offer.

In "Desmond and the Very Mean Word" (ages 4-8), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize winner writing with Douglas Carlton Abrams, offers his own tale of how cruelty is passed from person to person, and how learning to forgive is the escape.

Bob Staake takes on bullying in a wordless picture book, "Bluebird," (ages 4-8). A lonely boy unable to break into any group suddenly discovers a bright spot: He is befriended by a blue bird, a splash of color in the gray landscape. A single friend, Staake points out, makes a difference. It's not a happy story -- bullies don't evaporate because of one friend -- but the magical ending seems to promise, in the spirit of the LGBT-support ad campaign: "It gets better."

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