Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bystander, by James Preller

This goes in the list of “books I can’t stop thinking about.” Eric is new in town, and while he’s idly shooting baskets by himself, a kid runs past. Flees, actually. And the kid is covered in ketchup. A few minutes later, some other kids ride up on their bikes, asking if Eric has seen anyone come by. Instinctively, Eric lies and says no. Griffin, the leader of the boys on bikes, takes something of a liking to Eric, and while Eric has some misgivings he can’t put his finger on, the two become friends. Griffin can charm the pants off most adults, and it takes a little while before Eric even realizes that he’s a bully. But it’s not so easy to stand up to a bully when he’s your friend--and doubly hard to stand up when you know you’re the next one at risk.

What’s keeping this one in the forefront of my brain, really, is how brutally realistic this is. Most bullies--especially in middle school, where this is set--aren’t of the punch-you-and-take-your-lunch-money ilk. Griffin’s initial target--the kid covered in ketchup--is someone Eric confesses is just unlikeable, not some plucky hero who can make the bullies rethink their evil ways. Every single character acts and reacts realistically, flaws and all. Eric knows that bullying is wrong, and he points it out tentatively, but he knows that it’s not going to change things all that much.

What’s good, though, is the acknowledgement that even if things don’t change school-wide, speaking up to protect even one kid is worthwhile. Speaking up even just to voice the opinion that bullying is not cool is worthwhile, even if nothing changes. And that being a bystander to bullying may keep you safe, but it won’t help you sleep at night.

There’s also a plot thread about girl-on-girl bullying, with rumors and slander, and a girl who wants out even though it means social suicide. Kudos to Preller for its inclusion; it’s so easy to overlook how mean girls can be to each other when boys actually throw punches.

This is the most realistic look at middle-school bullying I’ve read. It’s not a flattering portrait, but it is realistic, and I think that’s important. By “realistic,” I mean that the kids mock the “don’t be a bully” assembly; our hero admits that the kid being bullied sort of asks for it, even though that doesn’t make it right; school administration talks a good game but ultimately the bullying persists; in the end, the bully is still a bully, he’s just moved on to different targets. Because of its realism, I think this would make a great book for discussion and I’d love to see it replace the hokey Revealers that’s currently the 7th grade Required Summer Reading book. Unfortunately, because of its realism, I don’t think that will happen--much better to leave kids with the idea that three outcasts can write letters to their classmates about being bullied and not be mercilessly teased for it, or that lots of people sharing their stories of being bullied will make the bullies have this epiphany and suddenly become choir boys. Ahem.

Anyway. Bystander. Add it to your Bullying-themed booklists, work it into your book discussions, and see if you can sell it to your middle-school administration. Books like this remind me (as if I needed a reminder) why I am so, so relieved to never have to be a middle-school student again.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Half Brother

I loved this book! Set in 1973, the story deals with the controversial issues of animal testing, psychology and family. The main character, Ben, welcomes a chimp into the family as a brother. But then when his dad loses his research grant, tough decisions have to be made. Ben is put through an emotional wringer.

The story is incredibly poignant and really illustrates the huge strides science has made in the last 40 years.