My boxing friend Mark has an idea for a reality tv show that is both of our fantasies-come-true. The show would set up you and your bully in a boxing ring. It would be a real fight with a set date so that you could train, a pre-determined number of rounds and a referee. Of course, your bully opponent might not have been training for a fight for years … and that’s what makes this a fantasy! In reality, it would probably be depressing to fight those middle school bullies thirty plus years later (though putting up a good fight would earn my respect of my bully tormentor).
My kids have each had a few incidences of bullying over their short life. It was nothing too momentous, especially by my childhood standards. It’s no longer politically correct to solve conflict through physical fights (my boxing trainer laments; he’s pretty old school) and anti-bullying training in school with greater awareness by teachers has made bullying less blatant. It still exists though … and the rise of cyberbullying probably is one result of not letting kids solve conflicts through physical fighting. I suspect there is an innate primal drive for humans, much like wolf packs or chickens, to assert pecking order in order to establish an alpha leader and perhaps bullying is one negative outcome of that impulse.
In any case, our school’s anti-bullying strategy has been to train the kids who bystand to not be passive observers but to stand up to the bully on behalf of the victim. I think that’s very effective. I also think that a strong offense makes a bully look for a weaker person to pick on. My anti-bullying strategy is a little of both: teach my kids to stand up to bullies and give them the tools to feel empowered which include fighting skills. Honestly, I don’t think I will ever regret instilling self-defense skills as an innate reaction.
How about you? How have you dealt with bullies either in your past or on behalf of your kids? Do you think books on bullying help kids with this issue? What books should I add to this list? Thanks so much for your take!
10. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
If you liked The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, this is a kind of picture book version of bullying and the lost opportunity for a “do over.” Chloe thinks the new girl Maya is “weird” with second-hand clothing and different food for lunch. Chloe and her friends exclude Maya who plays alone, trying to engage them but always failing. One day Maya isn’t to school and their teacher talks about kindness and the ripple effect of an act of kindness. Chloe is unable to contribute an act of kindness so she has to pass on the stone, undropped into the bowl of water. Chloe hopes Maya will come to school so she can finally smile back as her but Maya never returns. It’s a bittersweet lesson for Chloe, but a lesson well learned about the power of kindness.
9. A Man Called Raven by Richard Van Camp
Two boys are torturing a raven, hitting it with broken hockey sticks so that now one wing is dragging. It hides from the boys and ultimately flies away. The raven is gone, but suddenly a huge man is standing in front of them. He’s angry at their treatment of the bird and insists on talking to their parents. When he sits them down though, he tells them a Native American folk tale of an irascible man who turned into a mean raven. Observing his own funeral below, the raven/man is shocked to see the whole town at his funeral despite his ill-treatment of his people. He realizes he had a place in his village and from henceforth, the raven protects the villagers from danger.
8. Wings by Christopher Myers
An urban African-American Icarus is different from the rest of the kids given his magnificent wings that allow him to swoop and soar in flight. But it’s these differences that cause adults and kids to envy and bully him. One boy notices how unkind words are making Icarus sad and he decides to intervene by sticking up for him to the bullies. His friendship is all it takes to make Icarus soar joyfully in flight again.
The crux of a bully/victim relationship actually lies in the bystanders who must be drawn into to the conflict and stick up for the victim. This is what our elementary school bullying curriculum teaches and it’s a testament to the power of crowd dynamics. But standing up to a bully is not easy. It makes that child perhaps the bully’s next victim so there is strength in teaching bystanders to react as a group to the bully, confronting him or her to make it stop. This picture book helps to teach kids this scenario of handling a bully.
7. King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer
In Lehore, Pakistan, the festival of Basant is cause for a big celebration with feasting and parties. Malik is especially excited for the kite-flying battles. He’s made a special kite, Falcon, that he flies from his wheelchair on the roof of his home. Malik especially wants to beat the bully next door who hits him and throws stones at his sister. The bully’s kite, Goliath, is big but slow while Malik’s is built for speed. Toe to toe, the kites battle in the air, each boy trying to pull the other kite down. Malik’s skillful kite flying defeats the bully’s kite and the pile of kites he has won grows at his feet. At the end of day, Malik hears yelling; the bully next door has taken a young girl’s kite from her. Malik knows just what to do. He drops Goliath into the alley for her. It’s an act of kindness suitable for the King of Basant, the winner of the kite-flying contest. Malik is already dreaming of next year when he will defend his title with an even better kite.
6. Goal! by Mina Javaherbin
In a poor South African township, gangs of bullies roam the streets terrorizing anyone they can. Ajani and his friends have earned a real leather soccer ball, a prize to be coveted and they need to be careful so that it doesn’t get stolen by bullies. This is a good reminder of the world around us and that even though children in other countries might live in difficult circumstances, they are able to transcend them through friendships, a sense of resilience and their love of soccer.
5. Pepita and the Bully/Pepita y La Peleonera by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman
This self-published girl bullying picture book is bi-lingual in Spanish and English. Babette picks on Pepita telling her that her name is a noise, her dog has fleas, and her braids look like two raggedy ropes which makes Pepita not want to return to school. She realizes that Babette might be telling her these mean things because it’s how Babette feels about herself. I think this is correct psychology for many girl bullies. At the end Pepita tells Babette that she can join them to play if she can just be nice which is a very positive way of handling a difficult situation.
4. One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
It’s Farah’s second day at her new school in America and she’s going on a field trip to an apple farm. Wearing a dupatta which covers her head and not speaking English makes her different. Each child can pick only one apple and Farah chooses a green apple from a lone tree that also does not seem to belong. The students get to press their apples into cider and a boy notices her green unripe apple and starts to protest but it’s too late. It goes down the chute. And like that green apple that is different but blends into cider, Farah realizes that she too will find her place in this new country.
I included this book on the list because I love how Farah, so different from everyone else and from a country that is viewed with hostility in her new country, could easily have become the victim of a bully. Instead, two of her new classmates befriend her. It’s an easy leap from “different” to “weird” to “victim” but this picture book models a different way of behaving.
3.Yoko by Rosemary Wells
Yoko’s mom packs her favorite food for her lunch but the other kids in her class make fun of her sushi. It’s no better at snack time. The Franks exclaim that “Red bean ice cream is for weirdos.” Her teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, frets into the night and comes up with a brilliant idea. She will celebrate International Food Day in class and everyone must eat a bite of everything. There are enchilada, Caribbean coconut crisps, Nigerian nut soup, Brazil nuts, Irish stew, potato knishes and more but no one tried Yoko’s deluxe sushi. Finally, after playtime, Yoko hears the chopsticks. It’s Timothy and he’s still hungry. He tries her sushi and asks for more! So they decide to set up a restaurant the very next day with her dragon rolls and his tomato sandwiches.
2. Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
Tricia’s new class is called “the junkyard” because everyone in the class has special needs and is considered different and odd. Her new friend Kay won’t associate with anyone in “the junkyard” and Tricia is not allowed to sit at her table at lunch. Barton Poole and his gang terrorize her as well.
Tricia’s teacher, Mrs. Petersen, believes in them and turns them from junkyard trash to The Junkyard Wonders. And while each of the kids in the junkyard are different, they also each have remarkable talents. Ravanne doesn’t speak but she’s a wiz at math. Gibbie has Tourette’s but he’s a mechanical genius. Jody has a disease that makes him grow too fast and he loves poetry. Tricia, a.k.a. Patricia Polacco, is an artist with dyslexia.
Mrs. Petersen then takes them on trip to an actual junkyard where they work in teams to create something wondrous out of the junk they find. Gibbie has his team create a model plane that will fly to the moon. In the afterword page, we learn that Gibbie goes on to become an aeronautical engineer for NASA, designing the lunar modules for the Apollo missions. In fact, all Mrs. Petersen’s junkyard wonders have found success in the world, thanks to her guidance and belief in them.
1. Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully
Beautiful Warrior is the story of a Kung Fu nun, Wu Mei, and her most famous pupil, Mingyi.
A baby girl is born during the Ming Dynasty in the Forbidden City but unlike other girls, her father allows her to study like a boy including art, literature, music, medicine and martial arts. When the Ming Dynasty is overtaken by Manchu warriors, she is all alone in the world. She decides to go to the Shaolin Temple to continue her kung fu studies, becoming a Buddhist nun.
When a young girl selling bean curd gets attacked by thugs, a tiny nun intercedes and she single-handedly defeats the thieves. But Mingyi’s problems are not over. Another gang leader shows up and threatens to destroy her family’s shop unless she marries him. Mingyi remembers Wu Mei and goes to the Shaolin Temple for help, hoping that Wu Mei will fight on her behalf. Wu Mei will not; instead she trains Mingyi for one year in the art of Kung Fu and meditation. She guides Mingyi to offer to marry the thug if he can defeat her.
At the end of the year, Mingyi faces her opponent, flowing like water, yielding like bamboo, and reading her opponent with her mind empty and calm. She easily defeats him and decides to devote the rest of her life to the study of Kung Fu.
This book list demonstrates many different strategies for dealing with a bully, but the one that resonates with me is:
A good offense is the best defense. Anonymous
How about you?
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.