Can Books Solve the Bullying Problem?

In the New York Times today, Leslie Kaufman takes on the new proliferation of books about bullying in the Y.A. and children's markets. There are more, yes, but they are also different.

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Last year, it was futuristic dystopias. This year, it's ... bullying. (Maybe these two topics are more alike than one would think at first glance.) In the New York Times today, Leslie Kaufman takes on the new proliferation of books about bullying in the Y.A. and children's categories, and beyond. She writes, "Publishing houses are flooding the market with titles that tackle bullying. The books are aimed at all age groups — from Bully, a picture book for elementary-grade students, to the The Bully Book, for middle school children, about an average kid who suddenly becomes everyone’s favorite victim, to Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon, a recent release for adults that includes both stories and analysis."

In fact, there's been an overall increase in English-language books tagged with the key word bullying over the past decade, Kaufman adds. This may in part be because bullying as the go-to phrase to indicate such behavior simply wasn't used in the same frequency back in, say, the '80s or prior. (Take a look at the Google Books NGram viewer: the word shot up in its appearances in books beginning in the year 2000.) 

To tell the truth, I'm not sure the text of Judy Blume's Blubber, which, published in 1974, was a bullying touchstone of my day, used the phrase at all. I didn't find it in a quick glance through, and it certainly doesn't appear in the title, or in its description on Blume's website, either. To me, Blubber was a powerful book, presenting the danger of going along with the group because of fears you would be ostracized otherwise, and the challenge of doing the right thing, regardless of what anyone else said or did. I also took away the notion that you don't have to like someone in order to be kind to them, and most of all, the idea that the bullying, someday, might turn on you too. We were all together in potentially being bullied, which means we were all responsible for doing our part to stop it. Another book I read as a kid that touched on bullying was the great Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade, by Barthe DeClements; there are, of course, others. There have long been books about young people struggling to be friends with others, to avoid mockery, to stand up against peer pressure, and to be happy about who they are; these are key topics in the Y.A. world. But the ways in which the subject of bullying is presented does seem to be different today, in part because the way we think about bullying has changed. 

    There's even a change in the way we consider the term bully; no longer does it apply simply to the brutish lout who threatens to beat you up and steals your lunch money, the guy who clearly is in the wrong, the guy everyone agrees is a jerk, even as they're scared of him. Bullying might be what happens to you online when a bunch of anonymous commenters gang up on you and call you names. Bullying is when high school students share an unflattering photo or note on Facebook about someone else, and others glom on, and the bullied person becomes the target of a wide swathe of abuse coming from all directions—and blames him or herself. Bullying can mean things very modern, and things from the "olden days," too—it's the slam books of old and the social media circles of now, gone awry. Teens have always had the ability to be mean, but bullying, more insidious than ever, can kill people.

    So, as Kaufman explains, there are all sorts of books on the subject, from the anthology of personal essays, Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories from HarperTeen in 2011; to the fantastic book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which isn't an "antibullying book" per se but is being taught as one anyway; to The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, about the trials and tribulations of an outsider vampire. One affecting book I read recently that tackled the subject of peer pressure and mob mentalities was novel The List, about an annual high school list that brands eight students "pretty" or "ugly." The variety and scope of these books is wide. Not every book about bullying has a happy ending, and there are even books from the perspective of the bully, explains Kaufman.

    Y.A. writers tend to be very good at addressing issues that impact kids now, and one of the great, important features of books in the category is to give readers a chance to figure out how they feel and to learn from experiences one hopes they don't have to face in real life. If they do confront bullying, the goal is, they'll know how to deal with it, take comfort in knowing they're not alone, and maybe, someday, the surge in bullying itself could be quelled by the information and empathy the books serve to share. In that effort, in conjunction with the surge in books on the topic, there are also antibullying campaigns, Facebook pages offering anti-bullying support, and there's a conference on the subject to be held in October in Missouri for authors, writes Kaufman. It's a topic close to the hearts of many, perhaps because, as Kaufman points out, authors who address the subject have often themselves been bullied, too.

    In a dream world, one would imagine, there would be no more books about bullying because there would be no more bullies. For now, there are plenty to choose from, and that's a good thing.

    This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.