A few years ago, I received a call from a mother in my community. Her voice breaking, she asked me if I could help her. Her son, she said, was involved in a bullying episode, and she was wondering if I had any titles I could share of books that might help them through the situation. I launched earnestly into a helpful list of powerful titles, and ended with an expression of my heartfelt empathy for her and her son. There was an awkward silence on the other end of the line, and then the woman said: "I'm not sure if you understood me. It was not that my son is being bullied, it's that he is the bully."
I was momentarily taken aback, for she was right: I did assume he was the victim. But then I thought about it, and realized these titles I'd given her were every bit as important for the bullyer as for the bullied. Exposure to great literature can change everyone.
Reading builds resilience and empathy. The act of reading brings the gifts of stories that have the power to change a child's perception, help a child deal with uncomfortable situations, and model different options for being strong in the world.
Childhood can be a profoundly lonely experience. Whether it's walking to school wishing for a friend, or sitting by oneself on the bus or dreading the endless minutes in the cafeteria, our children need fortification. Sometimes their own feelings of shame and confusion lead them to want to dominate others.
And for the child who is at risk of being bullied, it can be the child who is uniquely kind and open, who hasn't got a mean bone in his body and in that way becomes a victim to others who do. Or it is that child marching to his own drummer, who stands out. Every one of those qualities that might make a child "different" now are so often exactly the qualities that are going to make that child so interesting and special as an adult later. The director Tim Burton said when his baby was born he immediately prayed the kid would grow up to be a high school misfit because he knew that would be a signal of something good to come along later. But that is small consolation for right now.
It is therefore one of the many great blessings of literature that stories offer a way to say at the same time: we are not alone and also that we can build new worlds for ourselves that help us make sense of the unfathomable, and to build strategies that will help us fight the dark forces.
A spoonful of sugar was Mary Poppins' prescription for pain. Mine is to read aloud to children, each and every day, from books that not only teach the lessons of managing those challenging terrains but give hope and inspiration in the darkest times.
Here are my top choices:
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Stand-Tall-Molly-Lou-Melon/dp/0399234160/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349276451&sr=8-1&keywords=Stand+Tall%2C+Molly+Lou+Melon%2C+Patty+Lovell%2C+Ages+4+and+Up">Molly Lou Melon</a> makes no secret of her unique appearance. The wonderful illustrations, by David Catrow, also reinforce Molly's quirky yet endearing looks. With the support of her grandmother, Molly exudes confidence and joy, radiating beauty even as her unusual features are emphasized. When Molly moves away from her grandmother and to a new school, she relies on that very confidence as she encounters people who bully her and the way she looks.
A clever parent teaches an important lesson in <em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Enemy-Pie-Reading-Rainbow-book/dp/081182778X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349276813&sr=8-1&keywords=enemy+pie" target="_hplink">Enemy Pie</a></em>. The narrator, a young boy, is certain that the arrival of his enemy, Jeremy Ross, to the neighborhood will make his life miserable. His father offers him some sneaky advice about how to deal with the situation, promising that if his son is nice to Jeremy for a whole day, he will create and serve a pie that will rid the neighborhood of Jeremy forever. Readers will see how kindness can be an effective tool in dealing with difficult peers.
Mean Jean fills the role of the bully, here called the "<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Recess-Queen-Alexis-Oneill/dp/0439206375/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349277091&sr=1-1&keywords=recess+queen" target="_hplink">recess queen</a>," commanding control and power at the playground. The recess dynamics are overthrown, however, when a new character, Katie Sue arrives. Katie Sue's kindness and new perspective teach readers that often even the worst of bullies, like Mean Jean, want to play with others too.
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Chrysanthemum-Kevin-Henkes/dp/0688147321/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349282153&sr=8-1&keywords=chrysanthemum" target="_hplink">Chrysanthemum</a> is a mouse with an unusual name. Her supportive family loves and embraces both the name and the young mouse, leading Chrysanthemum herself to find her identity magical. When she arrives at school, however, classmates do not respond as kindly to her name, cruelly throwing flower-related terms at her. The continued support of her family, along with the introduction of a kind and uniquely named music teacher, allow Chrysanthemum to embrace her name and all of the individuality that goes along with it.
Otoshi demonstrates how a seemingly simple story about colors can actually become an important tale about bullying and personalities. In this world, Red is "HOT" and mean and begins bullying cool blue. <a href="http://www.amazon.com/One-Kathryn-Otoshi/dp/0972394648/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349282377&sr=1-1&keywords="One"+by+Kathryn+Otoshi" target="_hplink">One</a> enters the scene and stands up to Red, teaching understanding through colors and numbers.
Issues of race and friendship are central to this beautifully written and illustrated book. Woodson <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Other-Side-Jacqueline-Woodson/dp/0399231161/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349282730&sr=1-1&keywords="The+Other+Side"+by+Jacqueline+Woodson" target="_hplink">tells the tale</a> of the friendship between two young girls, Clover and Annie. Their friendship carries the weight of racial segregation: Clover, who is African-American lives on the other side of a fence that separates her from Annie, who is white. Woodson emphasizes the power of friendship and connectedness.
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Name-Jar-Yangsook-Choi/dp/0440417996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349282842&sr=1-1&keywords="The+Name+Jar"+by+Yangsook+Choi" target="_hplink">Unhei</a> has just moved to America from Korea and on her first day of school, she is worried about how her classmates will react to her name. She decides to withhold her name and, instead, plans to pick a new name out of a jar. The growing support of her classmates leads to her own acceptance of her true name.
Eleanor Estes' classic book is both heartbreaking and hopeful. A girl named Wanda Petronski wears the same blue dress to school every day. When her classmates make fun of her, she lies and claims that she has <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Hundred-Dresses-Eleanor-Estes/dp/0152052607/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349283000&sr=1-1&keywords="The+Hundred+Dresses"+by+Eleanor+Estes" target="_hplink">one hundred dresses</a> at home. Her classmates see through her lie and their bullying grows more extreme, ultimately causing Wanda to leave the school. Maddie, another student who has watched these events unfold, feels real empathy for Wanda and for the outcome of the situation, vowing always to stand up to bullying in the future. The beauty of the book is not in a perfectly happy ending, but in the sensitive way these subjects are addressed.
A fourth-grader named Jake shares some of his experiences with bullying. Clements conveys important messages on handling bully situations while crafting a story that is as enjoyable to read as many of his other popular books.
Auggie, born with a facial deformity, goes to public school for the first time in fifth grade. My absolute <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Wonder-R-J-Palacio/dp/0375869026/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349291355&sr=1-1&keywords=Wonder%2C+RJ+Palacio%2C" target="_hplink">favorite book</a> of the year, and maybe one of my new favorites of all time, reading this book can change lives. The parents and sister all play vital roles in the book, too. The author describes the book as a "meditation on kindness".
<a href="http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/theres-a-boy-in-the-girls-bathroom-louis-sachar/1100572435?ean=9780394805726" target="_hplink">Bradley Chalkers</a> is a fifth grader who does not fit in. In many ways, Bradley fits the mold of the school bully: he is mean, unfriendly, and older than the rest of the kids in his grade. But a school counselor, Carla Davis, sees the potential in Bradley and offers him her support and guidance.
Friendship is at the heart of this beautiful novel. <a href="http://www.amazon.com/When-You-Reach-Yearling-Newbery/dp/0375850864/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349291895&sr=8-1&keywords=when+you+reach+me+by+rebecca+stead" target="_hplink">Stead's story</a> is laced with elements of mystery and allusions to other significant children's literature (most strikingly, Madeleine L'Engles A Wrinkle in Time). The protagonist, sixth-grader Miranda, is smart and observant, bold but also vulnerable.
Fitzhugh's timeless book documents the adventures of spunky <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Harriet-Spy-Louise-Fitzhugh/dp/0440416795/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349292016&sr=8-1&keywords=harriet+the+spy" target="_hplink">Harriet</a>, who spies on the people around her. Harriet jots down her sometimes biting observations in her notebook, a fun hobby until her notebook and all that is written in it is discovered. Harriet is left to deal with the difficult fallout from this discovery.
A group of four middle schoolers are bonded together by their individual inabilities to fit in. They are all "<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Misfits-James-Howe/dp/0689839561/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349292116&sr=1-1&keywords=the+misfits" target="_hplink">misfits</a>," in one way or another, and each bring a different perspective and different voice to the concept.
At the age of twelve, Carley Connors has already experienced some of the most difficult of challenges. Raised for most of her life in an unstable family environment, Carley's world is uprooted when she is placed in the care of a foster family, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/One-Murphys-Lynda-Mullaly-Hunt/dp/0399256156/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349292241&sr=1-1&keywords=One+for+the+Murphys" target="_hplink">the Murphys</a>. The Murphys provide Carley with care and support, and the novel follows Carley's constant process of learning to understand herself and her place in the world.
And to end, my top tips for how to weave discussion into your read alouds with your child, so that you can make the most of these opportunities to forge an even more open, close relationship:
1.) Pause for reflection. Ask open ended questions you do not know the answers to, such as: "What are you thinking about right now?"
2.) Share your own perspective, as honestly as you can. "This passage reminds me of..." "I am reacting to this part..." "What I am thinking is...."
3.) Don't interrupt the reading too, too much! Let your child get lost in the world of the story. Pause for reflection periodically, but not so much that you lose the flow of the story.
4.) Be game to reread. Some of these books are so good, your child will want to revisit them. Rereading is good for the mind and good for the soul. Do it!
Here's to year in which the blessings of kindness fill your child's days.
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