Monday, 18 November 2013

#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "Tackling bullying through Children's Picture Books"

To support National Anti-Bullying Week (18th-22nd November) we thought we'd devote this week's #ReadItMD13 Theme Week to this very tough and sensitive subject.

As someone who was bullied at school, I know first-hand what it feels like to dread going to school, dread playtimes and lunchtimes - and sometimes even dread the journey to and from school too. When I was a child, methods of tackling bullying were wholly ineffective - reactive rather than trying to get to the root cause, punishing the bullies (if any action was taken at all) rather than trying to work out why it was happening.

Things have changed a lot, and with national initiatives in tackling bullying - and the brilliant efforts of schools themselves to more effectively present a culture where bullying isn't tolerated but is also sensitively dealt with really feels like a huge step in the right direction.

Bullying is a prevalent subject in children's picture books. Often characters associated with bullying are shown almost as grotesque caricatures, or in books where anthropomorphised animals are the key characters, bullies are often shown as predatory powerful animals who you'd normally associate with picking on the weak.

"Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe" by Brian Moses and Garry Parsons. T-Rex Trouble!

In "Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe" by Brian Moses and Garry Parsons, the "Bully" is a fearsome T-Rex with a rumbling tummy who storms into the Dino Cafe one day and causes trouble. He's hungry for fresh meat and instantly picks on three other dinosaurs dining there, with the aim of polishing them off.

In the book, a wily trouble-shooting Triceratops - a bit of a tough nut himself - stands up to the bully, and with the help of the other three dinosaurs they biff, bash and tickle the T-Rex into submission.

When we first reviewed this book, we thought it was a bit of harmless fun - but re-assessing this book with a bunch of like-minded booky folk made me think again about its content and whether it does more harm than good. There is the positive message that standing up to bullies collectively is a strong action to take, but there's the mixed message that violence and submission - or indeed using sheer weight of numbers to turn things around - is a laudable action. With "Victorian Parent" sitting on one shoulder and the rather more carefree "Don't be so wishy washy" parent sitting on the other, it's a tough call to make, but the subtlety of books that deal with bullying is something to truly consider.

"Mine's Bigger than Yours" by Jeanne Willis and Adrian Reynolds
In "Mine's Bigger than Yours" by Jeanne Willis and Adrian Reynolds, the big monster relentlessly pursues and picks on the little monster, chasing her down and constantly harassing her for her lolly. All through the book the big 'bully' monster denigrates the little monster, until the very end when the big monster bully gets his comeuppance. Again though this book demonstrates the sort of outcome a child would like in a book about bullying, it sends the wrong message - that "Justice" is meted out at the end and everything turns out OK.

Again and again in children's literature, stories that feature bullying often end with the bully coming a cropper. Though even classic stories that deal with the issue can be spun around and given a more positive ending.

"Three Billy Goats Gruff" from Child's Play
In Child's Play's version of "Three Billy Goats Gruff" the usual end where the troll is knocked into the middle of next week by the biggest goat is passed over for something rather more satisfying, and certainly more of a 'fit' with what we'd like to see more of in books that deal with the issue of bullying.

There's no violence, instead there is a showdown - but resolved by Big Goat handling the situation fairly and evenly by standing up to the troll firmly. It was a very pleasant surprise to read a version of the story that worked from both the bully's and bullied parties' perspectives.

We'd really welcome feedback from you our lovely readers on this tricky subject. Have you read an anti-bullying book that really felt like it was a step forward in how bullying and bullies are portrayed in children's literature? We'd love to hear about it so please do leave a comment below or tweet us @readitdaddy

Please also take a moment to visit the National Anti Bullying Action website where you can find a huge amount of useful resources and information on the subject