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Bullies in Kidlit

Let’s get this right out of the way: bullies are horrible, bullying is universal, and a bully plot or subplot is a great way to establish an underdog character. They’re also a very important topic for kids to read about. After all, who doesn’t want to comfort a bullying victim or see a bully change their ways? However, if you’re grinding this axe in your manuscript, you’re not the only one. Far from it. One query recently made me almost fall out of my chair laughing when it read: “Since bullying has become such a big national issue…” (or something close to this sentiment).

First of all, “has become”?! Where has this writer been? Bullying has existed since the dawn of time and, unfortunately and despite the heavy media attention it’s been getting in the last few years, will continue to exist. Kids (and even some adults) need to try out power dynamics, push boundaries, and be bad people in order to figure out how to (we hope) be good people. Often at the expense of others. It’s human nature. And even those who consider themselves universally bullied can be the villain in another even more put-upon kid’s story (as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon discovered when she went to her high school reunion). It’s a horrible cycle and not even a boatload of all the fuzziest anti-bullying picture books will make a difference. Sad? Yes. True? I think so.

So, how do we tackle the bullying issue in a way that pays attention to reality? Let me just say, the bullying topic/character/plot in my slush pile is so tired that even a five-shot espresso drink won’t perk it up. Bullies are not exempt from all the writing tips out there on creating complex, multidimensional characters. Especially if they’re the primary antagonist. But most of the bullies I see are invariably large, physically, dull, mentally, and disturbed, emotionally. The girl versions are always mean, pretty, and popular. The second an aspiring writer begins to weave a school scene, I know I’m going to invariably meet a) the quirky best friend and b) the bully, who slams around the hallway, slamming people in to lockers.

Think differently about your bullies (especially their motives and actions) and about your bullying scenes. And don’t feel like you need to include the obligatory bully/bullying dynamic in your story just because it’s popular or realistic. Characters you force yourself to write are the flattest of all to read. If you want to truly go there and portray bullying, you need to do more research into what actually goes on in today’s halls, relay it unflinchingly, and try not to force a candy-coated resolution at the end. And make your bullies real people who can, on a certain level, command their own sympathy from the reader.

If you manage this, you’ll be far ahead of the pack. I, for one, would actually like to read a complex bully character and a realistic bullying scenario. Until I find one, query letters promising to address this “recent” epidemic most often get an eyeroll from me because there is no bigger stereotype in the schoolyard canon.

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  1. Kathleen’s avatar

    I think a good example of a recent complex bully character is in Scrawl by Mark Shulman.

  2. Laura Marcella’s avatar

    Bullies have been written about in kidlit long long before the media latched on to the bullying issue.

  3. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Once again, great thoughts. I’m so excited for your Writing Irresistible Kidlit book. I pre-ordered one for me and one for all my writing friends for Christmas!

  4. Gwen’s avatar

    As far as I’m concerned, all bullying novels begin and end with, ‘Blubber’ by Judy Blume. It’s told from the POV of the one of the bullies. It’s notable for pointing out that the ‘laugh it off’ platitude is stupid advice. Assault and abuse are not funny.

  5. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    But what if the bully is a vampire, and it’s a school for supernatural kids? THAT’s gotta be new, right?

  6. Kevin A. Lewis’s avatar

    Thanks for being so commonsensical and non-hysterical about this; this subject is such a sacred cow recently that it’s getting ridiculous. I’ve always had a policy of only bringing this into a story if it’s relevant and never emphasizing helplessness for pathos points-Mark Petrie in Stephen King’s Salems Lot is the best benchmark I know of-the one place it comes up in the book I’m shopping around now is a black violin player who ties a couple of football players into a knot (he’s also an aikido expert) for calling him a gaylord oreo-point made fast and in funny fashion, and it’s overwith. Unfortunately I think a lot of gatekeepers (present company excepted, of course) seem to be more interested in Making A Statement than in presenting books kids might want to actually buy and read, probably reasoning that if enough get force-fed kaopectate lattes, they might actually start liking them……………..

  7. Robin Fowler’s avatar

    It may well be a popular topic – then and now – but it’s relevant in all its manifestations in and out of school hallways. I agree with the need for more creativity. Susin Nielsen’s Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen takes an unusual look at bullying in its extreme. Solid research, plenty of humour, and layers of complexity.

  8. Jarrett Mentink’s avatar

    As dear ol’ Freud would argue — the basic morals and values of teenagers are already formed — thus, the anti-bullying messages are most effective when targeted at the early readers, less likely to be set in their ways. These messages are imperative — but, unfortunately, many of the books written with such themes are geared for young adults — who care more about their peers than they do about an author’s abstract voice. The impact of anti-bullying campaigns and such reading material is far greater when focused on a Kindergarten student rather than a high-schooler.

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