Chris Lutrario reviews a selection of currently available fiction and non-fiction on a perennial school problem.
Recently bullying has been much in the news. Tragic and sensational stories have hit the headlines; campaigning organisations have been formed and hotlines set up.
This may or may not reflect an increase in bullying. What’s certain is that people are more aware than they used to be of children’s rights and of the threats which children face. Authors and publishers have responded to this new mood, and many books about bullying have been published recently.
In Shirley Hughes’ Lucy and Tom go to School (Puffin, 0 14 054415 1, £3.50 pbk), bullying is just one of those things you have to put up with. That was in 1973. Nowadays the attitude is different, and, in books for young children at least, bullies are always resoundingly defeated.
In Babette Cole’s zany Hurrah for Ethelyn (Heinemann, 0 434 93293 0, £7.99), set in a boarding school for ‘ratlettes’, brainy Ethelyn is picked on because she’s different. Her torment ends when she rescues the bully and performs an emergency operation on her ‘probably squidged’ brain.
The bullies’ come-uppance is equally swift in Rosemary Wells’ Hazel’s Amazing Mother (Picture Lions, 0 00 663159 2, £3.99 pbk). The mother in question, telepathically in touch with her daughter, senses that something is wrong and routs the bullies with a stern cry of ‘Wait just a minute’ and some well-aimed tomatoes. Delightful, wacky and infinitely reassuring.
The latest title from Jean Van Leeuwen, Oliver Pig at School (Mammoth, 0 7497 0837 9, £2.99 pbk) hints gently at bullying. Oliver’s first day at school is being spoiled by Bernard, who kicks and pokes him during storytime. But they discover a mutual interest in dinosaurs and quickly make friends.
Tyrone the Horrible (0 590 76029 7) and Tyrone the Dirty Rotten Cheat (0 590 55014 4) by Hans Wilhelm (both from Hippo, £2.99 each pbk) introduce us to ‘the world’s first big bully’- a Tyrannosaurus Rex, inevitably. Little Boland tries all sorts of strategies to prevent Tyrone from making his life a misery: avoidance, making friends, nonchalance, fighting. Nothing works. So Boland tricks Tyrone into eating a ‘double-thick-red-hot-pepper-sandwich’ and disturbing a nest of bees. There’s a natural satisfaction in seeing a bully get his just deserts, but there’s an unpleasant edge of violence here. The problem of how to stop a bully without using force crops up again and again, in books as in life.
The message of Rose Impey’s Trouble with the Tucker Twins (Viking, 0 670 82587 2, £8.50), is that bullies are ‘soft inside’. It takes both Tucker twins to make a bully: when one’s away, the other goes to Pieces, sobbing over his sums and his shoelaces. Mick, their victim, helps him, and goes home happily knowing that their power has gone.
Rosemary Stones’ No More Bullying, a Dinosaur ‘Talk It Over Book’ (0 85122 806 2, £3.99 pbk), is a straightforward account of a young girl’s experience of bullying and how the problem is solved. The story is rather thin, but close to children’s experience and just the thing to get them talking.
Anthony Browne’s three books about Willy the Wimp offer deeper insights. In the latest, Willy and Hugh (Julia MacRae, 1 85681 030 5, £6.99) Willy bumps into the aptly named Hugh Jape. Willy, and the reader, expect another humiliation. But Hugh and Willy become friends. Hugh saves Willy from Buster Nose and Willy rescues Hugh from a spider. In their puzzling, unsettling way, these books explore an issue at the heart of bullying: the relationship between physical strength, power and courage.
In the 7-9 age range, some of the most appealing new books about bullying mix reality and fantasy. In Anne Fine s delightful The Angel of Nitshill Road (Methuen, 0 416 17892 8, £6.99), it’s a recording angel in the guise of a new girl who comes to the rescue. The bully cannot stand publicity and exposure. Although it depends on supernatural intervention, the story is full of acute perceptions about bullying and how to stop it.
Krindlekrax (Cape, 0 224 03149 X, £8.99; Red Fox, 0 09 997920 9, £2.99 pbk), a lively novel by Philip Ridley, mixes bullying with the stuff of legend. Two things are terrorising Lizard Street: Elvis Cave who smashes windows with his football, and a giant crocodile that lives in the sewers. Ruskin Splinter, Elvis’s prime victim, summons up the courage to face them both, taming the crocodile and puncturing Elvis’s football and his pretensions to power. In doing so he proves that courage has nothing to do with size, strength or aggression.
Nicholas Fisk’s hilarious Broops! Down the Chimney (Walker, 0 7445 2121 1, £6.99) reaches out into science-fiction. Thugsy makes a mistake when he picks on Broops, an ‘alien blob’ which has fallen to earth. Broops sees the bully’s behaviour not as a threat but as an invitation to play, and innocently thumps him into submission. Children will revel in Thugsy’s downfall, which cleverly manages to both raise and sidestep the moral issues.
Jan Mark’s gentle and imaginative The Snow Maze (Walker, 0 7445 2401 6, £4.99) also steps into the fantastical, a world in which bullies do not feel at home. Akash mocks Joe’s discovery of a mysterious maze which only Joe can see. Joe’s friend, Irrum, small but brave, defies Akash.
The simple realism of Eric Johns’ Jason and the School Bully (Corgi, 0 552 52497 2, £1.75 pbk) seems limited in comparison. It does, however, raise the question of how to resist bullies without responding in kind. The answer here is to hoist the bully’s bike to the top of a tree – dubious, perhaps, but at least non-violent.
Two books in the popular ‘Banana Books’ series treat bullying in clever, amusing ways, and find non-violent solutions. In Robert Leeson’s Burper (Heinemann, 0 434 93072 5, £2.95), the bully mends his ways when he falls in love, a fate which also extends the range of his conversation, previously limited to ‘Gimme that’, ‘I’ll thump you’ and ‘You wait till break’. Bullies are boring and no fun to be with. In Michael Morpurgo’s The Marble Crusher (Heinemann, 0 434 97670 9, £3.99), the bully exercises power by telling tall tales to a trusting new boy. Unfortunately for the bully and his marbles, the tale about the marble crushing machine turns out to be true!
Amongst books for older juniors, Dick Cate’s Rodney Penfold, Genius (Walker, 0 7445 2213 7, £8.99) stands out -for sheer wit at least. It is, as Rodney himself says, ‘a comic detective story about a defective detective hunting a dog’. Corvel is the bully who spends his time ‘shaking the sweets out of first-years’ and threatening old ladies’ pets. Rodney is the worm that turns, getting his own back and solving the mystery. An acute, sideways look at the subject.
Racist bullying is the subject of Alan Gibbons’ time-shift novel, Whose Side Are You On? (Dent, 0 460 88049 7, £7.95). When the ‘cocks of the school’ taunt Mattie for being friends with Pravin, he knows he should take a stand, but runs away . Stumbling into an old house, he is drawn back through time to a sugar plantation in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Finding the courage which eluded him at school, he joins the slaves in an uprising. When he arrives back in the present, he knows whose side he is on. Although it often stumbles under the weight of historical information and the political message is too overt, the story is interesting and exciting.
The Trial of Anna Cotman by Vivien Alcock (Methuen, 0 416 13952 3, £8.95; Mammoth, 0 7497 0444 6, £2.25 pbk) is a forceful metaphoric treatment of bullying, especially acute in its examination of peer-group pressure. Joining a ‘club’ based on ritual and secret oaths, Anna finds herself imprisoned in a world where ‘hidden horrors moved and [she was] unable to cry for help’. She breaks free only when the club’s Master is literally unmasked and his power revealed as a sham.
Aidan Chambers’ The Present Takers (Mammoth, 0 7497 0700 3, £2.50 pbk) is now almost ten years old, but still fresh and powerful. Melanie torments new girl Lucy in ever more vicious ways. The bullying spreads like a disease until Lucy and her friend Angus persuade all those who’ve been bullied by Melanie to write about it in the class newspaper – the kind of solution sought by everyone who tries to put an end to bullying. It’s non-violent and prevents the bully from simply turning his/her attention to someone else.
Many of the new books for secondary school pupils set bullying in a social context, and in so doing offer more searching and disturbing explorations of the behaviour of bullies, their followers and their victims.
The bullying in Chris Nicholls’ The Ziggurat (Bodley Head, 0 370 31487 5, £7.99; Red Fox, 0 09 986040 6, £2.99 pbk) is particularly disturbing. It’s cool and systematic. Most of the victims collude in it. And its leader is neither stupid nor cowardly. His defeat comes only when his ‘wizard-like’ hold over people is broken in a confrontation which brings together natural and supernatural forces. This powerful novel is full of interesting ideas, but often wordy and over-explicit.
In Yvonne Coppard’s Bully (Bodley Head, 0 370 31524 3, £6.99; Red Fox, 0 09 983860 5, £2.99 pbk) the victim is Kerry, a girl who’s been crippled in a car crash. Shame and fear of making things worse prevent her, like most victims of bullying, from telling other people what’s going on. Determined to fight back, she resorts to the bully’s own weapons: blackmail and violence. The boundaries between victim and bully shift and blur. This is a brave, ambitious novel which refuses to accept easy solutions. It sets the behaviour of the characters against their social backgrounds and its portrait of a disabled person is utterly unsentimental.
The first part of Alick Rowe’s Voices of Danger (Mammoth, 0 7497 0412 8, £2.99 pbk) sets bullying in the familiar surroundings of a school. But it is 1916, and the main characters are soon swept off into battle on the Somme. Neither bully nor victim can rid themselves of their previous experiences, and the consequences for both are tragic. This is a vivid, panoramic novel which raises disturbing questions about what power does to both those who have it and those who do not.
As well as this wealth of fiction about bullying, there are a number of relevant new information books.
Michele Elliott’s Feeling Happy, Feeling Safe (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 55386 2, £3.99 pbk) prompts young children to talk about the situations, including bullying, in which their well-being might be threatened. Despite an occasionally patronising tone, this is a level-headed and useful book.
Older teenagers will find the frank tone of Helen Benedict’s Safe, Strong and Streetwise (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 48495 0, £2.50 pbk) appealing. It’s mainly about sexual abuse, but the chapter on self-defence, physical and non-physical, is relevant to bullying. The book is packed with information and advice.
The abstract, generalised approach of Angela Grunsell’s Bullying (Franklin Watts, 0 7496 0056 X, £6.99, in the ‘Let’s Talk About’ series, for children of seven and older) is less successful. A series of questions and answers about bullying soon becomes bogged down in complex definitions and analyses.
Practical, informative books like these have a role to play. But it’s to fiction that we must turn if we want to understand the causes, the workings and the effects of a complex personal and social phenomenon like bullying. Using a selection of the new picture books and novels may not put an instant end to bullying, but it does offer children imaginative insights into the experiences of other people, bully and victim alike. And that can only help.
Chris Lutrario was an Advisory Teacher with the ILEA and is now working as a freelance educational writer. He’s the author of Hooked on Books, a complete resource pack published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 0 7466 0050 X, at £35.00, as well as several other books for teachers on the assessment of primary English.