Tag Archive: bullying

Review: The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

scar boys

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

Trying to fill out a college application, Harry decides to ignore the word limit and tell his full story to that point.  When he was 8 years old, kids in his neighborhood tied him to a tree during a thunderstorm.  The tree was struck by lightning and set ablaze with Harry tied directly to it.  Harry has severe scars both physically and emotionally from that day.  Harry had no friends until Johnny came into his life, a charismatic and confident boy who swept down and saved Harry from obscurity and loneliness.  Together the two of them started a band, one that really sucked at first, but then amazingly got better and better.  Called The Scar Boys, the band transported Harry from his dull life into a different type of storm, one of music and pure joy.  But bands often fall apart and so do high school friendships on the brink of college.  As the future looms closer, Harry has to figure out what to give up on and what is worth fighting to keep.

Vlahos’ debut teen novel is a screamingly funny wild ride.  The author was in a band himself when he was younger and the moments onstage read honest, zany and completely true.  The writing throughout is smart and clever, making points with arrow-sharp zingers that are surprising and make for a great read.  Here is one from page 97:

Truth is, if we’d had a shred of sense, we’d have known we were getting in way over our heads.  But you can’t buy shreds of sense, and even if you could, we were pretty much out of money.

Harry is a great protagonist.  He is witty and smart himself, since the book is written in first person from his point of view.  Vlahos manages to never lose track of Harry’s scars but also manages to make his scars much deeper than his skin and therefore the book about much more than that as well.  It is a book that explores friendships, power and dreams. 

An amazing debut novel, it has a winning mix of punk rock, guitars and real life.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley from Edelweiss and Egmont.

better nate than ever

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Nate lives in Jankburg, Pennsylvania probably as far from Broadway that you can get.  But Broadway is where he dreams of being.  So when an opportunity to go to an open audition for E.T.: the Musical comes around, he and his best friend figure out how to get him to New York City without anyone knowing.  It involves taking an overnight bus from Pennsylvania, taking his mother’s ATM card, and fooling his older brother.  Then when he reaches New York City, he has to figure out how to get to the auditions all on his own.  There’s a lot that can go wrong in a plan like that, but Broadway and being a star is worth the risk! 

Federle has created a tremendously cheery book that is filled with humor and a wonderful light-heartedness.  Nate is a character that will speak to many kids who are interested in theater.  He describes himself as “undecided” about his sexuality which makes this a very friendly book for middle schoolers who are either questioning their own sexuality or gay.   Nate has a wonderful inner voice that he doesn’t allow to speak aloud.  His funniest moments are things that he says to himself about circumstances and other people. 

While the book remains consistently positive, Federle does also deal with deeper issues like bullying, being the kid at school who doesn’t fit in, alcoholism, and broken families.  All of these issues are dealt with seriously and yet at the same time aren’t allowed to make the book dark in any way. 

There is humor and hope everywhere in this book.  It is a delight of a middle school read.

Reviewed from library copy.

king for a day

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Kromer

It is Basant in the city of Lahore, Pakistan and Malik has only made one kite to use in the kite battles over the city.  Malik is still sure of himself though, eager to show how fast his Falcon kite is.  Malik is especially interested in teaching the bully who lives next door a lesson for all of the times he’s said horrible things to Malik and his sister.  He also dreams of being the king of Basant, the best kite fighter in the city.  Malik spends his day freeing other kites by cutting their strings, and at the end of the day he has a pile of kites at his feet.  Then the neighborhood bully emerges again and tries to take a kite from a little girl, but Malik uses his new status as King to solve the problem.

Khan has captured a unique festival in Pakistan that is vivid, visual and offers children the ability to take on the city for a day.  Malik sits in a wheelchair throughout the book, but it is never mentioned in the text.  This quiet acceptance of a disability adds power to the idea that Basant is a holiday for everyone and that all abilities and ages can participate.  Khan has a nice touch with the kite battles, creating drama by sharing details but also making sure that the story is fast-paced and interesting.

Kromer’s illustrations are a beautiful mix of paper art and textiles.  Using textiles from the region brings in the deep colors and textures.  The paper arts capture the crispness of the kites in the sky and also the beauty of the people.  The mix of the two has a richness that suits the subject.

Celebrate Basant with this picture book that offers a glimpse of the Pakistani culture through the eyes of a young boy.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss.


Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Seeger has created a very different style of book from her recent Green and First the Egg.  Here there is a bull who doesn’t know how to make friends.  He’s been bullied by the other bulls and when asked to play by some other animals responds in the same way.  He puffs himself up and calls them all names until one little goat stands up to him and calls him a bully.  Then he realizes the way that he’s been acting.  He returns to his regular size, no longer puffed up and cruel, and apologizes to them.  Luckily, they are still willing to play with him.

Still done in her ultra-simple style, this book has only a few words.  Most of the bullying is conveyed by the artwork and the bull’s posture and size.  He becomes so dominant on the page while he is bullying others that it is impossible to see anything but him.  The illustrations are done in flat color and thick lines with handmade paper as the background. 

Really capturing the feel when you are being bullied, this book also shows that if you are bullying others, you can self-correct and still be friends.  The simple style and direct message make this more appropriate for very young children ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

invisible boy

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Brian is invisible.  His teacher never notices him in the classroom.  He doesn’t take up much space.  He never gets picked when kids choose kickball teams.  He isn’t invited to any parties.  Brian spends his time drawing dragons, pirates, aliens and superheroes.  Then Justin joins Brian’s class.  Justin uses chopsticks at lunch and eats different food than everyone else.  The other kids laugh at him and Brian feels happy being invisible.  Brian leaves Justin a drawing that says that Justin’s food looked yummy.  Justin talks with Brian about his art, but is quickly called away to play games with the others.  When a chance comes for them to work together on a class project, Brian starts to feel a lot more visible.

Ludwig paints a vivid picture of an isolated child here.  The true success on these pages is the capturing of very subtle forms of bullying rather than the overt type seen in so many picture books.  This is the type that involves exclusion from the group rather than physical violence.  Ludwig not only captures it, she also shows just how damaging being alone can be for a child.  At the same time, Brian is bright and creative and willing to connect.  Ludwig also shows how a single child can make a difference and bring someone who is invisible into the group.

Barton’s illustrations have a beautiful softness to them.  She incorporates paper art in her digitally painted work adding another dimension.  Brian starts out almost transparent and only done in pencil with no color at all.  As he starts to reach out to others, color comes to him and eventually he is just as fully colored as everyone else.  This visual transformation nicely captures what is happening emotionally.

A superb book about bullying and exclusion, this can be used to start discussions in a classroom or with a single child.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.


Butter by Erin Jade Lange

Bullied because of his weight, Butter eats alone at a table with a special bench in the cafeteria.  He sits alone in each class, thanks to his specialized desks.  His parents struggle with his weight to, his mother continuing to try to get him healthy food and his father basically not speaking to him at all.  Butter’s one big connection is with his online girlfriend who doesn’t realize who he is and who is starting to pressure him to meet in person.  As Butter’s life continues to become more and more bleak, he makes a desperate decision: to eat himself to death on the Internet.  When he makes the threat, Butter suddenly gets attention from some of the most popular boys in school.  Suddenly, Butter has friends, a group of kids that includes the bully who gave Butter his name.  But as the day gets closer, Butter begins to wonder if he really wants to commit suicide and how he will survive at school if he doesn’t go through with it.

This book has such a strong premise with the overweight teen bullied into committing suicide in the most humiliating way possible.  What I didn’t expect though was to completely fall for Butter.  Butter is big yes, but in so many more ways that his physical size.  He has a huge sense of humor.  He has an enormous musical talent.  Best of all, Butter is completely human, not stereotypical in any way. 

Lange’s writing skill takes this book from what could have been a morose and vicious read and turns it into a book that really explores the levels of bullying, ranging from a single cruel and inhuman attack to the more subtle and even more dangerous support for self harm.  Along the way, Butter will become dear the reader, as his death approaches, Butter’s dark friendship with the boys buoys his spirits, but readers will continue to see through it even when Butter can’t. 

This is not a book you can put down, because you will have to see how it ends but also because Butter himself is a compelling protagonist.  From its timely anti-bullying message to the thrill of the Internet both for dating and humiliation, this book is a great teen read.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.


Bully by Patricia Polacco

Lyla was very nervous about starting sixth grade at her new school, but she met Jamie on her first day and they immediately became friends.  Lyla found herself fascinated by the three popular girls in school, who completely ignored her.  She managed to get their attention when she got the top grade on an essay.  Lyla tried out for cheerleading and made the team.  Lyla even negotiated with her parents to get a laptop and Jamie helped her put together a Facebook page.  Suddenly the popular girls started to pay attention to her and Lyla found herself joining them for lunch, leaving Jamie behind.  But when a test is stolen and Lyla is accused of stealing it, she finds herself being bullied on Facebook and online.  The story ends with the real thief being caught, but there is still the question of how kids who are being bullied should respond.  What would you do?

Polacco grapples with many issues in this book.  There are the popular kids and the others, something that we have seen in books again and again.  But Polacco works to make this more than about mean girls by focusing on Lyla and her own reaction to bullying.  Lyla sits quietly and allows others to be picked on by the girls, unwilling to speak up.  While she does eventually disengage from the others, her own role in bullying is exposed too.  The theft of the test takes the level of bullying higher, moving it online and making it very personal.  Polacco manages to make the abuse believable but also devastating.

My one problem with the book is that the adults in the story are fairly ineffectual in stopping the bullying.  When Lyla’s brother is having real issues at his new school, their parents do not get involved.  Additionally, when the bullying against Lyla escalates, she does not turn to adults for help.  It’s an unfortunate omission.

As always Polacco’s art is a large part of the appeal of this book.  Her realistic illustrations use fine lines and bright colors to tell the story.  The emotions on her faces are particularly effective, showing exactly what they are thinking.  I also enjoyed the clothes worn by the bullies and the way that they wore similar outfits that held together as a group.

This is a great book to start bullying discussions.  It shows how bullying can come from nowhere and escalate quickly.  Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Putnam.

each kindness

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

During a snowy winter, a new girl came to class.  Maya wore ragged clothes and a broken shoe that wouldn’t keep her foot dry in winter snow.  The new girl was put next to Chloe, who refused to even look at her, moving far away in her seat and looking out the window.  Day after day, Chloe never smiled or looked back.  Maya kept trying, offering her new jacks she got for her birthday, but the girls all refused to play.  Maya ended up playing alone.  Then Maya was gone, her seat empty.  That day, the class learned about kindness, about the way it ripples like a pebble dropped into water.  The children were each given a small stone to drop in and tell the class about a kindness they had done.  Chloe couldn’t think of any, her mind filled with the way she had treated Maya.  As the days went by, Chloe hoped that Maya would return so that she could smile back.  But then they heard that Maya had moved away.  Chloe would not be able to return that smile.

Woodson does not pull back on her message here.  She speaks directly to the sort of bullying that groups of girls are best at, ignoring and dismissing.  Readers will immediately feel for Maya, who has done nothing at all to earn the scorn of the girls, except wear the wrong clothes.  But Woodson also makes sure that we feel for Chloe too, using her as the narrator for the story.  This works particularly well in the latter part of the book, where she is hopeful she will be able to right the wrong she has done. 

Lewis’ art is realistic and quite simply amazing.  He shows us through his images Maya’s side of the story, starting with her refusal to look at the class when introduced, her hopeful smile before Chloe turns away, and her isolation as the seasons change.  After Maya leaves, Chloe is shown as the isolated one, alone on a blank white page, solitary in nature. 

The power of this book is in the ending, where it does not wrap up happily with Maya returning and being embraced by the Chloe and her friends. Instead, it ends realistically with deep regrets and hope that Chloe will respond differently next time. This is a book sure to trigger discussions when shared with a class. I can see talking about bullying, kindness and differences.

Highly recommended, this is a powerful book that is worth sharing and discussing.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.


The List by Siobhan Vivian

At Mount Washington High School, the same thing always happens just before homecoming.  The List comes out.  It gives the names of two girls in each grade: one is named the prettiest in that grade, the other the ugliest.  Being on the list can change your life at Mount Washington, and it does for all of the eight girls on this year’s list.   Abby is ecstatic to be on the list as prettiest freshman, especially with her brainy older sister looking down at her all the time.  Danielle, the other side of the freshman pair, sees the list take a toll on her relationship with her boyfriend.  Lauren, prettiest sophomore, was previously homeschooled and finds that the list can help her make new friends.  Candace, named the ugliest sophomore, isn’t unattractive at all, instead it’s her attitude that is horrid.  Bridget, celebrated for losing so much weight, knows that she’s started something very dangerous.  Sarah is a rebel and immediately writes UGLY across her forehead in permanent ink.  And then there are the seniors, two girls who used to be best friends and who now are strangers, one whose path to homecoming queen seems clear and the other who has been on the list as ugliest all four years. 

Vivian sets the wheels of this story in motion and her characters take over.  It is a trick to create eight characters unique enough to read as individuals throughout an entire book, and Vivian does that very well.  She explores the relationship between beauty and self-esteem, beauty and popularity, and the perception of beauty and its impact.  Some of the girls are robbed of that feeling while others have never felt it.   But it’s not just about the “ugly” girls.  The perception of beauty haunts the “pretty” girls as well, creating rifts in friendships, questions about values, and eroding self-esteem in much the same way as being labeled ugly.

Vivian does not shy away from this complexity, instead she embraces it.  This is foreshadowed by the reaction of the principal to discovering the list where she warns the girls that they have all been hurt by being placed on the list. 

Here we have a book that is deep, complicated, and riveting reading.  It’s a book that takes on some “truths” of our society and turns them on their head, in a pretty beautiful way.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.


Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Auggie has never been to school, instead he’s been homeschooled his entire life.  It made it easier to work his schedule around his many surgeries for his facial anomaly.  Auggie was born looking differently than the rest of the world due to several genetic abnormalities coming together in one moment, something that only has a one in 4 million chance to happen.  But it happened to Auggie, and now he is getting ready to start 5th grade in a private school.  Auggie knows that he is just a regular kid hidden behind an uncommon face, but the question is whether his classmates will ever figure that out.

It’s amazing to think that this is Palacio’s first novel.  She writes with a natural flow and skill that makes the book read effortlessly.  It’s one of those books that gets into your head and won’t let go, that not only tells a story but asks things about you the reader.  It has you exploring your own relationship with beauty, the extent of your own kindness, and the truth behind being human. 

Auggie is such a rich character and such a winning one that I was surprised when the book first changed perspectives.  I had assumed that we would see through Auggie’s eyes for the entire novel.  But the different perspectives also show depth to all of the other characters in the book.  We get to see Auggie through his older sister’s eyes, ones that are loving but also despair at being paid enough attention by her parents.  The perspective shifts again and again to classmates, his sister’s ex-friend, and even his sister’s boyfriend.  Then we return to Auggie for the end of the book. 

This use of multiple perspectives works particularly well given the arc of the story, it all comes to a satisfying close that is built from those many perspectives and those many characters.  Things are not sugar-coated here.  People respond naturally to Auggie’s face, even those who had been informed about it beforehand.  There are bullies, friends who are true and those who come in and out, there is middle school drama.  There is also a real family portrayed here, struggling to give their exceptional son an honest life, trying to pay attention to both of their children, and consistently showing love and caring for one another laced with real humor.

I adored this book, wept at times, ached in the heart a lot, and laughed too.  It’s a book worth sharing, worth passing along, and one that will crossover effortlessly to adult readers.  This is a powerful, uplifting, luminous book.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.


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