As a teacher-librarian, I spend most of my days answering questions, teaching research, and helping students find good books. It’s the best job in the world.
Last spring, it seemed not a day went by when I wasn’t asked about the book Thirteen Reasons Why. With the premiere of the Netflix series, parents and teachers wanted to talk about their concerns with the show. Students wanted to get their hands on the book on which the series was based. Jay Asher’s book was not the first, nor would it be the last, to address bullying and the effects it can have on victims, bystanders, and the bullies themselves.
The beauty of books, more so than television shows, is that they can help us develop empathy or allow us to see inside a character’s head for awhile. Kids who are bullied may feel a little less alone if they read about a character being bullied in a book. Kids who are bystanders or bullies may be motivated to change, even just a little, if they see themselves mirrored in a paragraph or two.
There are plenty of fantastic books that deal with bullying that can help kids understand a little more about it without preaching to them. Here are some of my favorites for upper-elementary and middle school students.
“I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
Wonder by R.J. Palacio spent more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list. Ten-year-old Auggie has severe facial deformities and has endured countless surgeries. He’s terrified when his loving parents announce that he’ll attend school for the first time this year. While he’s the central character, the book is narrated in first-person by Auggie’s friends, family, and even one student who says hurtful things about Auggie. This middle-grade novel has won legions of fans.
In this Teaching Channel video, Tch Laureate Genevieve DeBose teaches the book, Wonder.
Boy at the Top of the Mountain
“Is it really that easy for the innocent to be corrupted?”
Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne is as difficult to read as it is important. Pierre is growing up in Paris as the Second World War looms. His best friend is deaf — and Jewish. When his mother dies, leaving him an orphan, Pierre goes to live with his aunt, the housekeeper at Hitler’s Berghof in Germany. After being bullied by Hitler and his followers, Pierre slowly turns into a bully himself, with devastating consequences.
What would you do?
Bully by Patricia Polacco is a picture book for older readers. Sixth-grader Lyla makes a great friend, Jamie, on her first day at a new school, but abandons him when the “popular” girls on the cheerleading squad invite her to join their group. Soon, the girls are leaving horrible comments on social media about Jamie and others. After Lyla finally stands up for her friend, she becomes a target online, too.
Will a bully always be a bully?
Restart by Gordon Korman follows the trials of a former bully who falls off his roof and ends up with a serious case of amnesia. When he wakes up, he doesn’t remember anything of his life before the accident and can’t understand the animosity and fear exhibited by his new friends in the video club. On his journey to mend his ways, he must win over the sister of a boy whom he tormented into leaving town. Funny and thoughtful, Korman’s books are always a delight and this one is no different.
“And I decided that there might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Though try I would.”
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk takes place in 1943 in rural Pennsylvania. New-girl Betty torments the protagonist, Annabelle, and her brothers mercilessly. When Annabelle finally stands up to Betty, the bully turns her attention to Toby, a World War I veteran who suffers from PTSD. When Betty disappears, Toby is the prime suspect, but Annabelle believes him innocent and sets out to prove it.
“Sometimes, you get answers to questions you never thought to ask. And sometimes, the answers make you wish you hadn’t asked the questions in the first place.”
Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Jack Stentz is particularly popular with eighth-graders at our school. Colin is on the autism spectrum and has been tormented by an older bully for years. He carries a notebook with facial expressions to help him decipher what people actually mean, however, understanding people and their motivations remains a challenge. When a gun goes off in the school cafeteria and the bully is arrested for the crime, Colin isn’t sure the authorities have the right culprit. He must decide if he should investigate and run the risk of returning his nemesis to school.
“The world’s a tough place… doesn’t matter if you’re a bunny or a lizard or a kid.”
Wishtree by Katherine Applegate was published in late September and explores a very timely topic. Red, a tree who has seen many changes in the neighborhood over more than 200 years, notices all of the comings and goings of the houses on the block, including when a Muslim family moves in across the street. Red is greatly disturbed when someone carves the word “Leave,” into the trunk and decides to try to do something about it.
This is a small sample of titles that would be great for read-alouds, class novels, book groups, or even a one-book, one-school program. Or just keep them on your shelf, ready to hand to that student who needs to know he or she is not alone. As the legendary author, Neil Gaiman said in a 2013 lecture about the importance of reading fiction, “You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”