Bystander by James Preller

As a middle school teacher, I see bullying everyday. People who don’t work in education tend to think bullying is only physical- fistfights and the like. But I see name calling, teasing, isolation, rumors, gossip, and much more used to instill fear in students. While most schools have anti-bullying curriculums, it seems that many students tune them out. When you are 11 or 12 years old, the last thing you want to listen to your teachers about is how to get along with your classmates. Everyone knows teachers are ancient and never experienced middle school!

That’s where a book like James Preller’s Bystander comes in.  Eric is the new kid in his Long Island town.  When he meets Griffin and his posse of hangers-on right before school begins he can tell they are a little different.  Over the next few weeks he learns that Griffin is the sort of kid who makes an awful enemy.  Charming and scheming, he is what teachers call an “adult pleaser but kid teaser”.  He is one of those kids with a naturally magnetic personality, one he uses to control the kids around him.  But he always puts on a different face for the adults in his life, such as teachers and parents, and convinces them he is a sweet, mild-mannered child with good morals.

Very quickly Eric realizes that Griffin is a bully.  But he doesn’t do much about it, as a bystander.  Why?  Because he isn’t the target.  As any kid will tell you, stepping in will only make you the bully’s next target.  At least, that’s the line of thought most kids follow.  But when Griffin goes too far Eric begins to notice exactly what he is doing to his so-called friends.  What’s a kid to do when his conscience kicks in but his brain tells him that he will be the next victim if he does anything?

I really enjoyed Bystander.  It’s not an easy book to read.  There were a few times where I felt teachers might enjoy it more than tweens, but the message really hits home.  Kids can be cruel and that doesn’t always mean throwing punches.  Sometimes, it’s the verbal and emotional bullying that is even worse.

What I really loved about this book is the fact that it doesn’t end with the teacher or another adult solving the problem and dealing with the bullies.  Eric and his friends need to decide for themselves how to handle the situation.  As a teacher, I admit to being a little frustrated at first when I read the last page.  But then I realized it is exactly what tween are looking for.  They don’t need us stepping in all the time and solving their problems.  They need to learn how to work within their own cliques and peer groups.  As much as we might want to see the bully “get what he deserves”, that isn’t always realistic and kids know that.  So kudos to James Preller!

I look forward to adding this one to my classroom library.  I think it would make a great read aloud or literature circle title.  I can imagine some great conversations and writing stemming from the story.

*My own purchased copy. This is a Cybils nominee and all opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the panel as a whole.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Verse Novels

My students love verse novels.  Whether they are dormant readers or voracious ones, my students pick them up and sing their praises.  It’s one of the easiest ways to get my students to read some of their least favorite genres.  If it’s a verse novel, they will read it!

Sonya Sones writes fantastic verse novels, and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies is one of the most popular among my girls. I’ve already had a few run out and buy their own copies of her other novels after reading this first.

Another popular author in my classes is Wendy Mass, and her Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall is never on the shelf anymore. Many of my girls read this novel first and then fall in love with Mass, moving on to her numerous other (non-verse) novels. I refer to Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall as a “gateway book”.

Historical fiction can sometimes be a tough sell for 6th graders. Thank goodness for Jen Bryant and her The Trial. Set in NJ, this verse novel follows the story of the Lindbergh baby trial and my readers usually set off to research even more about Lindbergh after reading this novel.

The Holocaust and WWII are two topics with no end of novels written about them. However, they can be heavy and overwhelming topics for some of my students. For those who are interested in the time period but don’t want the burden of a long, prose novel there is T4 a novel. Paula, a deaf 13-year-old, learns about Hitler’s T4 program, which states that doctors euthanize the mentally ill and the disabled. Because her deafness means she is a target, Paula is forced into hiding. This is a portion of history that most social studies books do not touch on and it always hits home with my students.

Brushing Mom’s Hair (a Cybils nominee this year) also focuses on a tough topic- breast cancer. Ann’s mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her recovery from surgery and her chemo treatments are by Ann, her youngest daughter. It’s a heartbreaking book but my students love it.

One of my most successful read alouds last year was Diamond Willow. This novel is an exciting mix of survival adventure and tween girl’s discovery of family roots and secrets. Willow loves her dogs and when an accident means one of them might have to be put down, she is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What great verse novels do you and your students love?

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