Thursday, October 1, 2015

Why bullying is a tough subject to cover in children's books - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

I was bullied at school. Throughout Middle School and Senior School I was bullied, in fact one of the main reasons I left school earlier than planned was because of bullying.

Since school, I'm very lucky to have only encountered bullying a handful of times - in scenarios where mechanisms existed to address it and counter it. I'm acutely aware of how sensitive an issue it is, and as a parent I have a keen interest in promoting anti-bullying measures and a very keen interest in seeing anti-bullying messages crop up in more children's books.

When you're being bullied, it feels like no one can help you. Certainly not at the moment it's happening, and sometimes not for a long time afterwards either.

Sometimes, friends don't want to pitch in and help because they don't want to be drawn into the cycle of bullying themselves.

Parents often don't understand the severity of bullying and quite often dismiss it as 'kids being kids' (particularly amongst boys but increasingly amongst girls too). Teachers and schools back in my day also took a fairly weak stance on bullying (in my case at least) though thankfully that is no longer the case.

When I was a child, the library was probably the safest place to be for someone like me - bullies never went there. I liked books as an escape, and children's books quite often featured bullies 'getting their comeuppance', karma kicking in or some magical happenstance that would redress the balance in favour of the victim rather than the bully, and of course I ate those stories up.

I remember thinking about the bullies in Roald Dahl books - who always seemed to end up coming a cropper thanks to the key character's magical abilities or newly adopted skills. The bully would be turned into some horrific creature, or end up shrunk to the size of a mouse or any number of other unfortunate fates and the story would often leave it at that. Very rarely did a story tackle the aftermath for bullies or their victims, the story was nearly always wrapped up neatly and nicely.

Generally in modern tales, we quite often see the bully taking on a change of heart and befriending the victim, or somehow being served such a valuable lesson that they completely change their character almost overnight. In rare cases you see a bully turn into a friend because the victim ends up 'rescuing' them in some way. In the scope of a children's story, perhaps this is the best we can hope for - that once again there's a neat resolution that ties everything up nicely and everyone lives happily ever after, but for the kids who are living a daily nightmare because of bullying, it's not really a great deal of help.

As children get older, and quite often as bullying can become more serious, books and stories often take a darker turn but again very few books seem to evolve beyond the picture book stage of bully redemption or karma finally seeing them come to a sticky end. So what could change this for the better? What can be done to demonstrate that bullying is a far more complex issue than just 'good vs evil'.

I've only seen a few books (notably the Harry Potter series, and arch-nasty Draco Malfoy) where a bully's background is explored and the reasons for their behaviour become apparent and traceable.  Perhaps traced back to their parents, or their home environment, or perhaps even an external influence that is beyond either of those.

Sometimes in books we'll see boorish parents' behaviour reflected in their offspring's own traits (again back to the Harry Potter series and Dudley Dursley) but it does feel that there's a vital link missing in the way bullying is portrayed and dealt with in children's fiction.

Perhaps it's an impossible wish. Perhaps it's just too far beyond the scope of children's books to be able to effectively tackle this thorniest of subjects, but I would desperately love to hear about any books that make a durned good attempt at it, particularly from folk who use or have used those books in therapy when dealing with bullying, either for themselves or for others.