Bullying is about as old as school itself. I see it everyday in all of its sneaky permutations. Middle school is the worst. These kids, new to teen life, are trying in every way to fit in and find their place in the hierarchy that is secondary school. This negotiation of power is always part of finding that niche that carries one through high school. Bullying becomes part of the negotiation when one person or one group uses the power to make themselves feel better than or more than. And in this digital age, bullying has become so much more than stealing someone’s lunch money. Anonymous emails and text messages are just the tip of the iceberg in the ways bullies can target and alienate their victims.
The world of middle grade and young adult literature has been full of bullies for years. Now that bullying is becoming more complex, authors are responding by writing more complex tales of bullying, its effects, and its consequences-be they good or bad. Here are five middle grade titles that deal with bullying and the myriad ways children and adults are enduring, permitting, or combating this old enemy.
WONDER by R. J. Palacio
I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.
August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
“Wonder is the best kids’ book of the year,” said Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate.com and author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.
THE MISFITS by James Howe
What do a 12-year-old student who moonlights as a tie salesman, a tall, outspoken girl, a gay middle schooler and a kid branded as a hooligan have in common? Best friends for years, they’ve all been the target of cruel name-calling and now that they’re in seventh grade, they’re not about to take it any more. In this hilarious and poignant novel, Howe (Bunnicula; The Watcher) focuses on the quietest of the bunch, overweight Bobby Goodspeed (the tie salesman), showing how he evolves from nerd to hero when he starts speaking his mind. Addie (the outspoken girl) decides that the four of them should run against more popular peers in the upcoming student council election. But her lofty ideals and rabble-rousing speeches make the wrong kind of waves, offending fellow classmates, teachers and the principal. It is not until softer-spoken Bobby says what’s in his heart about nicknames and taunts that people begin to listen and take notice, granting their respect for the boy they used to call “Lardo” and “Fluff.” The four “misfits” are slightly larger than life wiser than their years, worldlier than the smalltown setting would suggest, and remarkably well-adjusted but there remains much authenticity in the story’s message about preadolescent stereotyping and the devastating effects of degrading labels. An upbeat, reassuring novel that encourages preteens and teens to celebrate their individuality.
HOUND DOG TRUE by LINDA URBAN
“Do not let a mop sit overnight in water. Fix things before they get too big for fixing.” Fifth-grader Mattie Breen writes it all down. She has just one week to convince Uncle Potluck to take her on as his custodial apprentice before school starts. As his apprentice, she’ll have important work to do during lunch and recess . . . work that will keep her safely away from other fifth-graders. But when Mattie’s plans come crashing down, she ends up with a friend who is hound dog true.
THE CLIQUE by Lisi Harrison
Massie Block: With her glossy brunette bob and laser-whitened smile, Massie is the uncontested ruler of The Clique and the rest of the social scene at Octavian Country Day School, an exclusive private girls’ school in Westchester County, New York. Massie knows you’d give anything to be just like her.
Dylan Marvil: Massie’s second in command who divides her time between sucking up to Massie and sucking down Atkins Diet shakes.
Alicia Rivera: As sneaky as she is beautiful, Alicia floats easily under adult radar because she seems so “sweet.” Would love to take Massie’s throne one day. Just might.
Kristen Gregory: She’s smart, hardworking, and will insult you to tears faster than you can say “my haircut isn’t ugly!”
Enter Claire Lyons, the new girls from Florida in Keds and two-year-old Gap overalls, who is clearly not Clique material. Unfortunately for her, Claire’s family is staying in the guesthouse on Massie’s family’s huge estate while they look for a new home. Claire’s future looks worse than a bad Prada knockoff. But with a little luck and a lot of scheming, Claire might just come up smelling like Chanel No. 19. . . .
The Clique . . . the only thing harder than getting in is staying in.
COLD WATER by Billie A. Williams
The school was already quiet and had that certain kind of feeling empty places have like the ghosts of everyone in the past lined the walls watching you. Zip was silently hoping against hope that he could just walk home to find a warm cooked meal, no gangs, his mother all cleaned up and smiling, waiting for him. Instead, his mother was carted off to a psychiatric hospital and his only choices were homeless or foster home. He chose in an instant when he saw the worker from Child Protective Services charging across the walk toward him. Homeless wasn’t the problem. He’d been that before. Bullying gangs, survival and freedom were on his mind now.