I picked up Courtney Summers’ Some Girls Are the other day and read it in one sitting, repelled and hooked at the same time. Regina, the narrator, is so under the spell of Anna, her ‘best friend’ and tormentor, that you despair of her emerging from their toxic relationship with her sanity intact. As the reader, you really want her to be strong and withstand Anna’s hold over her, but wonder if it’s truly possible. The behaviour pattern is entrenched – and she’s succumbed once already. It’s a mesmerising look at the character-shaping world of high school, and the power games played within.
Nearly all of us have been either a bully or a victim at some stage in our childhood and teenage years. Some of us have been both. Maybe that’s why we’ve been reading stories revolving around the exploration of the relationship between persecutor and persecuted for over 150 years.
At their best, books dealing with this often uncomfortable topic tap into our inner thoughts: we experience the pain of the victim, and, although we might not want to admit it, sometimes feel the forbidden excitement of wielding power over another person, because we can.
The bully/victim relationship has changed shape as a subject for books for children and YA readers since Tom Brown’s Schooldays was published way back in 1857. Our grandparents and parents absorbed bullying of all sorts in books set in boarding schools by household names like Enid Blyton – Malory Towers, anyone? – and Antonia Forest’s more complex offerings featuring the Marlowe family.
At around the same time, possibly the most famous novel ever written about bullying, Lord of the Flies, was released in 1954. This gut wrenching tale of a group of British boys stuck on a deserted island who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results, may not have initially been aimed at younger readers, but it found its way into hundreds of schools since. It was followed by S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War in 1974.
Recent takes on the phenomenon of bullying in the school environment include, in a softer vein than Some Girls Are, Just Listen (2009) by Sarah Dessen, both of these echoing Laurie Halse Anderson’s ground-breaking Speak, published nearly a decade earlier. Also intriguing is Thirteen Reasons Why, where the victim wreaks revenge on her tormentors via a series of recordings from beyond the grave.
Nowadays, bullying amongst teens grabs more headlines than ever, mainly due to the explosion of social media over the last few years. Less overt than physical or social ostracism, it nevertheless has devastating effects on its victims, and features increasingly prominently in YA literature.
Branching out into non-fiction land is Dear Bully in which seventy authors of teen fiction tell their experiences of bullying and the lessons they took with them into later life. These are stories that are inspiring, funny, and, at times, very moving.
There are many books out there dealing with myriad aspects of bullying, and I’m sure many readers will be able to add to this list of starters, both fiction and non-fiction. These books tend to stick in a reader’s memory – I wonder why?
- Stargirl by (Newbery Award-winner)Jerry Spinelli – Knopf
- Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman – Hachette
- Freak by Marcella Pixley – Macmillan
- Mice by Gordon Reece – Allen & Unwin
And here are the publishers of the other books mentioned above:
- Tom Brown’s Schooldays Thomas Hughes Macmillan
- Malory Towers Enid Blyton HarperCollins
- Lord of the Flies William Golding – Faber and Faber
- Some Girls Are Courtney Summers – St Martin’s
- Just Listen Sarah Dessen – Viking (Penguin)
- Thirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher – Penguin
- Dear Bully (various) HarperCollins