Tag Archive: bullying


We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Stewart and Ashley don’t fit together like the kids on TV, their blended family is not entirely happy. Stewart is 13-years-old and went to a school for academically-gifted students until he and his father moved in with Ashley and her mother. Stewart doesn’t fit into his new public high school easily. Ashley on the other hand is the most popular girl at the high school. She loves her social status, makes sure everyone knows that she is on top, and loves to put together cute outfits and rework her clothes. Stewart lost his mother two years ago and isn’t ready to have a new mother while Ashley’s father announced he was gay and now lives in the little house in the backyard. Ashley hasn’t forgiven him at all and worries what will happen if news of his being gay gets out at school. Now these two very different teens have to figure out how to live together and how to survive one another at school too.

Nielsen takes two very different teen characters and tells their story of living together in both of their voices. Stewart is a great character, very bright and quite awkward, but also willing to try new things and put himself out there because his mother would have wanted him to. He quickly moves from potential stereotype into a unique character with quirks and interests all his own. While he may not make friends easily, he has a distinct charm about him, a gentleness and a sensibility that is lovely to see in a teen male character. Ashley takes more time to embrace the changes happening in her family and more time for the reader to see who she really is. The juxtaposition of the differences of the two of them plus this delay in understanding her more fully offer the book exactly the tension it needs to move forward and be compelling to read.

Ashley is a difficult character to enjoy. She is hugely self-centered and focused on social climbing more than being herself. Nielsen doesn’t shrink away from making a prickly teen girl a central character, something that is just as welcome as a gentle boy in middle school literature. The two of them together have a dynamic relationship, filled with moments where they collide but also gorgeous moments where you can see them grow together as siblings. The end of the book is immensely satisfying, particularly because it shows Ashley as a deeply thoughtful girl who has a creative flair in fashion and solutions and Stewart as a brave hero.

This is a very successful novel for middle school readers who will see themselves in either Ashley or Stewart. The book explores deep subjects but keeps a light tone, making it a great read.

Appropriate for ages 12-14.

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

fish in a tree

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

The author of One for the Murphys returns with a brilliant second novel. Ally hates school. She’d much rather spend her days drawing the vivid pictures in her head. Homework is almost impossible for her, since she has such trouble reading. To cover up her problems, she uses her disruptions and gets sent to the principal’s office often. When Ally gets a new teacher though, things start to change. Mr. Daniels can see who she is under the reading and writing problems, offering her compliments about the way she thinks and the way she draws. As Ally gets more confident, she just might be brave enough to ask for the help she needs rather than hiding and trying to be invisible.

Hunt writes with a light touch, never negating the powerful feelings that Ally is wrestling with and how serious her issues are. Yet it is that soft touch that allows the book to be so effective in its approach to dyslexia and the variations in the ways different brains think. Throughout the book, there is hope and readers will yearn to have Ally recognized as the bright and funny person they now her to be. Hunt also incorporates a bully who is intelligently drawn with just a glimpse as to why she is that way and who is just cruel and mean enough to be realistic.

Ally is a wonderful protagonist. She doesn’t hide her difficulties from herself at all, but works so hard to hide them from everyone else in her life, something she can achieve because she is so bright. Throughout Ally is immensely likable, someone who would make a tremendous friend. I love that she does not become this as the novel moves on, but she is already there, just waiting for others to discover her behind the barriers she puts up. The two characters who become her close friends are also strongly written and unique voices too, adding depth and diversity to the story.

An incredibly strong novel, this one belongs in every library and will be inspiring to students and teachers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

pack of dorks

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel

Lucy just knows that this is the biggest recess of her life, because at recess she will kiss Tom and cement herself as a popular fourth grader along with her best friend Becky.  But after the kiss happens, all she has is a ring that turns her finger green and a sinking feeling about what just happened.  Soon after the kiss, Lucy’s baby sister is born.  Her parents are shocked to have a baby with Downs Syndrome and are caught up in coping with the surprise.  That leaves Lucy alone to cope with the sudden turn of events at school where over the course of a few days she goes from being cool and popular to being one of the lamest kids in the class.  Becky calls Lucy at night to tell her all of the mean things that the other kids are saying about her, claiming that she is still Lucy’s friend but can’t be her friend at school anymore.  In the meantime, Lucy starts to make friends with some of the other kids in her class.  She does a project on wolves with Sam, a very quiet boy who is bullied by the same kids.  Out of that project and her growing group of outcast friends, Lucy decides that the only solution for them is to become their own pack.

Vrabel captures elementary school perfectly with its confusing social pressures that keep people conforming to the norm.  She manages to keep everything at just the right level, never becoming melodramatic about the situation.  At the same time, it is clear how devastating the bullying is to Lucy.  While she has a supportive family, they are distracted by the new baby and rightly so.  Her new little sister helps be a guide for Lucy forward, and is a very smart addition to the story, allowing Lucy her growth and also serving as an example of someone who will also need their own pack to support her.

Lucy is a character who becomes more likeable as the book progresses.  At first with her quests for popularity and kisses, Lucy is shallow but after she becomes shunned by the popular crowd she immediately reveals how smart and strong she actually is.  Vrabel’s brilliant combination of wolf packs and middle school bullies adds strength to the entire novel.

A smart book on bullies, differences and disabilities, this novel is one that will make a great read aloud for elementary classes.  Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from library copy.

categorical universe of candice phee

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

This Australian award winner is the story of 12-year-old Candice who is completing a school project that is supposed to be a paragraph for each letter of the alphabet that reveals something about her.  But Candice can’t keep it to one paragraph, so she begins to do chapters for each letter and the words she chooses for each letter are unexpected too.  As she writes, Candice is telling the story of her family and her pet fish.  She worries about her family falling apart, since her mother is still grieving the loss of Candice’s baby sister Sky to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  Her father is working on software in his spare time to prove that he can be as successful as his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, or flying his toy plane.  Either way, both parents are self-absorbed rather than paying attention to Candice.  She also doesn’t have any friends, until an unusual boy comes to school, a boy who believes that he’s traveled to another dimension and spends his time trying to get back home by falling out of a tree.  It seems to Candice that it’s up to her to fix a lot of what’s wrong, but how can she?

Jonsberg has crafted a unique character in Candice.  She may or may not be on the autism spectrum, but it is clear that she is different from the others in her grade and that they know it.  Yet Candice functions fully, just in her own way.  She loves her family, makes connections with others, and cares deeply about what is happening around her.  She just does it in her own way, one that makes sense and that shows just how smart she is. 

The book is wonderfully funny, with situations that are almost slapstick at times and others that are cleverly worked.  The scene where Candice forces herself to get on her uncle’s boat to talk about the problems between him and her father is classic nausea humor that is done to perfection.  Yet the book has plenty of depth too, with the deep depression that her mother has fallen into and even a little romance.

Strong writing keeps this complex book from tangling into knots and a strong protagonist gives it a unique and smart voice.   A great Australian import that is ideal for middle grade readers. 

Reviewed from e-galley received from Chronicle Books and Edelweiss.

my heart is laughing

My Heart Is Laughing by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson

Dani has always been happy, but now that her best friend has moved away to another city, she is unhappy sometimes too.  But Dani tries not to think about being unhappy.  Dani didn’t know anyone in her class when she started school, but now she does.  When two girls in her class both get a crush on the same boy and ask him who likes best, they are amazed when he shows that he’s much more likely to like Dani.  Dani tried to keep being friendly with the girls, but neither of them wanted anything to do with her.  Dani sat by herself at lunch, but she didn’t mind because she just thought about all of the fun she had visiting her best friend.  But then her teacher moved her between the two girls, and Dani was cruelly pinched by them.  Dani finally had enough, and reacted by squirting them (and then the teacher accidentally) with sauce.  Now it is up to Dani to tell the truth about what happened and to figure out how to find happiness without her best friend at her side.

This is the second book featuring Dani, following My Happy Life, which tells the story of how Dani met her best friend and then how she had to move away.  In this second book, the focus is on bullying and the author does a great job with it.  As the situation escalates, Dani remains apart from the situation for awhile, then finds herself right in the middle of it.  I appreciate that Dani is not faultless in the situation in her reaction, but also that she reacts humanly and believably to the situation. 

Set in Sweden, the stories have a universal appeal but also are clearly not set in the United States.  This is a gentle introduction to the subtle cultural differences and a great way to start a discussion about how people are both the same and different in other cultures. 

Fans of the first book will love the next in Dani’s adventures.  This will also find an audience as a read-aloud for teachers wishing to discuss bullying with elementary students.  Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Gecko Press and NetGalley.

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

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.

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