Celebrate Bullying Prevention Month!

Did you know October is National Bullying Prevention Month? Bullying can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any age. You might have experienced it growing up or maybe your children are experiencing it now. You might have experienced it at work with a co-worker or boss. The bottom line: BULLYING IS NOT OK. Standing by and doing nothing while it happens is also not ok. How will you be an upstander this month?

One of the best things we can do as artists is share our stories.  I will give my story a voice in hopes that it will help other kids find their voices.

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Become an Upstander

I just had the privilege of watching the recent documentary Bully as research for my middle grade novel.  I don’t think I was fully prepared for what I would see.  I don’t want to reveal too much with spoilers, so you’ll just have to watch it yourself.  But know that the camera follows real kids in both middle school and high school as they struggle with bullying in everyday life.  It isn’t pretty.  It’s shocking.

But the real question is: What are we as a society going to do about it?  One thing you can do now is spread the word.  Join The Bully Project.  I did.  Then you, too, can become an upstander instead of just a bystander.  And what does that really mean?  It means speaking up when you see or hear about someone being bullied.  It means taking action.  It means making a difference.

“I’M TAKING A STAND AGAINST BULLYING!”  Are you?

Interview with Marcia Kaplan, owner of Whale of a Tale, an independent bookstore

Hope comes for children and books in unexpected places….

Back in December, I had the opportunity to attend a book event featuring Denise Fleming, the distinguished picture book author and illustrator from my hometown in Toledo, OH. Learning the art of pulp painting was reason enough to drive down from Troy, MI, but another surprise awaited me when I arrived.

I knew the event would be held at someone’s home in Sylvania, OH, but I didn’t realize this person’s home would also be a bookstore.  When I arrived, I met Marcia Kaplan, who was not only a very welcoming host but also the owner of this in-home bookstore called Whale of a Tale.

Whale of a Tale

I marveled at how someone could open up their home for such an event. Bookshelves full of children’s books and topped with special displays lined the walls. I wondered how someone could put together such a professional display for one evening. Imagine my surprise to learn that I was standing in an actual bookstore inside someone’s home.

With the state of independent bookstores and books in general, I was eager to talk to Marcia about her unique venture. As you know, I’ve worked as a children’s librarian, so I’m always a champion of connecting books to children. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a middle grade novel about bullying. When I learned Marcia was also involved in supporting Ohio’s anti-bullying policy in schools, I knew I had to interview her for my blog.

AK:  What is your career background? Have you always sold books?  I also read that you worked for Reading Railroad before starting your own business. Is that a bookstore? Describe that experience and how it shaped your interest in books.

MK:  My career background was a B.S. in Dietetics. But I had small children at home and a wonderful little bookshop opened in our area. We practically lived there the first year they were opened. The owner had hired a really cranky salesperson and I asked if I could work part-time. She didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so I was temporarily hired to work for a couple of weeks while she sent friends in to see how I worked out.
Well I went from part-time to full-time to manager. For twenty-five blissful years, I worked at the Reading Railroad: A Children’s Bookshop.

AK:  What made you decide to start your own bookstore from your home?

MK:  The owner [of Reading Railroad], a very talented artist, decided she wanted to devote her time to her art. She sold the store and then I helped run it for a year for the new owners. Unfortunately, I wasn’t what she wanted and I found I was in need of employment. Living in a small town, there weren’t very many book options open to me. One of my book representatives said I could probably just do this from home. So Whale of a Tale was born.

AK:  What unique challenges do you face? What has been the biggest reward?

MK:  I don’t know if you realize what it entails to have a children’s bookstore. You read all the time, not during working hours, but nights, weekends, during lunch, etc. Then you sort through a lot of books to get to the good ones. That means dealing with a lot of publishers.
A lot of parents and children depend on you to make suggestions on every topic. Finding the right book for a child who is reluctant to read is one of the best rewards. I love when that child comes back and says, ‘That was the best book I ever read. Could you recommend another?”
Unfortunately, I lost a child when she was seventeen. A lot of people started coming and asking me what books to give to a child that has lost a friend, parent or grandparent. Trying to find the right book in that situation is a challenge, but there are a number that are thoughtfully written.

AK:  What do you think is the future of the independent bookstore and bookstores in general?

MK:  I still don’t know what will happen to independent bookstores. As long as parents promote reading in their homes and monitor what their children are reading I think independents will survive. It is becoming an electronic age, but being able to hold a book in your hands is priceless. We need books to stimulate children’s minds. [Children need to be able to] sit on a parent’s lap and share a story. Those things are so important. You can’t get that from an app.

AK:  You mentioned working with schools. How did you connect with Sylvania schools and in what way do you serve them?

MK:  I have worked with a number of schools. I do book-talks for teachers, parents and classrooms. I help find books that match the curriculum that is being taught. Teachers don’t have time to search for that one topic. That is where I come in.

AK:  You created a newsletter that serves as a resource for books about bullying. Who is it for and why did you create it?

MK:  When I created my bullying newsletter the state of Ohio had just required the teachers to implement [a unit on bullying] into the classroom. I thought it would be helpful for the teachers. There have been a number of books that have been written on the topic since my newsletter came out.

AK:  Which book from your list do you recommend or like most and why?

MK:  One of my favorite authors is Trudy Ludwig. Her book, My Secret Bully, really hits the mark. For younger kids, Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell is wonderful. Kevin Henkes is also a great writer. But I like most of the books in the newsletter for one reason or another. They all deal with a different form of bullying; no one book will hit all the topics.

AK:  You mentioned that Ohio has a requirement to teach about bullying. Do you think this is an effective way for schools to deal with the bullying issue? What other ways can schools and the community in general get involved?

MK:  I have struggled with your question in light of the school shooting. I think the problems can’t be resolved solely at school. Parents have the responsibility to make sure their children are brought up with core values. You can’t expect a teacher to undo what their students are taught at home in just six hours a day. When we were kids, if a child did something wrong another parent would correct it if they saw the incident. Now parents aren’t around to even witness the incident or don’t want to get involved.

AK:  Are all of the books mentioned in your bullying newsletter available for purchase at your in-home bookstore? Does the discount still apply? Can people purchase from you if they live outside the Sylvania, OH area?

MK:  The books are available to order. I don’t always have them in stock, but can get them quickly. Teachers and librarians always get a 20 percent discount. First-time parents and grandparents also get a discount. I will mail any books anywhere. There is a cost for postage. I also accept purchase orders.

AK:  Your newsletter focuses on bullying books for younger children. Upon request, you recommended a novel for older children called The Revealers. What is it about and for what ages is it targeted? Can it be purchased at your bookstore?

MK:  The Revealers  by Doug Wilhelm was purchased by a school system in Indiana for all their middle school children to read. Having a good book to discuss can really make a difference. When a young boy starts being bullied and doesn’t know how to cope, he calls on another kid who has been bullied. A girl gets involved with them and they start an email campaign. Then other kids start saying it is happening to them, too. This makes the kids realize they are not alone.

Another book I just love that isn’t included in the newsletter is Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Auggie was born with a facial deformity and he has been homeschooled up until fifth grade. But his parents want him to try going to a regular school. Three students are supposed to meet him before school starts and give him a tour. Auggie knows who is genuine and who is not. This book will make everyone rethink how we should treat those who are different from us. I am hoping this gets a Newbery Award. Then children would be assigned to read it and it might just make a difference.

On a lighter note, I sell books for infants up through high school. I read almost everything and can let you know if the book is age appropriate. I give recommendations all the time, to parents, etc. Call anytime or email if you have a question. marciajkaplan@hotmail.com 419-461-BOOK Whale of a Tale

For a copy of the newsletter, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Whale of a Tale
6732 Worth Ave
Sylvania, Ohio 43560

Hours are by appointment and the hours are very flexible to meet your needs.

Author Spotlight: Janet Ruth Heller

As you may know, I’ve been working on a MG fantasy novel about bullying.  It’s always nice to find authors who share a similar interest.  I came across a wonderful author, Janet Ruth Heller, who wrote a picture book about bullying.  Her book, How the Moon Regained Her Shape, offers some great advice on overcoming bullying.  I had the honor of interviewing her.  Please visit her website for more information.

AK: What inspired you to become a writer?

JRH: I’m the oldest of five children, and my mother read me many good poems and stories while I was growing up.  I began writing stories for my younger siblings when I was about eight years old.  I was also fortunate to have a first grade teacher, Mrs. Mesias, who encouraged us students to write poems.  She liked a poem that I wrote about flying a kite with my father, so she dittoed it for the whole class.  I guess that was my first publication.  When I was 14, I read about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Russell Freedman’s book entitled Teenagers Who Made HistoryMillay’s biography inspired me to dream about becoming a serious writer.  High school teachers like Barbara Gensler brought literature to life and nurtured my creative writing.

AK: You mention several favorite authors on your website, one of which is Jerry Spinelli.  He broached the topic of bullying in several of his novels.  Which one of his books did you like best and why?  Do you have any other favorite children’s authors?

JRH: I have read Spinelli’s novels Crash and Wringer.  I like both books because Spinelli encourages readers to question our society’s stereotypes about how boys and men should behave.  He portrays young men who begin by accepting the stereotype that men should act tough, should confront and bully other people, should always compete with the men around them, should abuse women, and should not care about other people’s feelings.  Gradually, Spinelli’s main characters learn to get in touch with their more sensitive and caring side.  Their realization that men are much more complex than the stereotype is a very profound concept that will help readers to also challenge these stereotypes.

I also love the novels by Judy Blume.  She helps young people to understand that many youths share the same problems.  I also like A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and the poems for children by Karla Kuskin and John Ciardi.  All three writers stimulate children’s imagination.

AK: Your picture book has a lyrical quality to it.  How has poetry influenced your writing?

JRH: I have written hundreds of poems and published two books of poetry, Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012).  My work as a poet has helped make my books more concise and more focused on images.  I use specific details to communicate with readers, rather than hitting readers on their heads with obvious lessons.  My book about bullying for children, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback 2006; paperback 2007; e-book, audio book, and Spanish edition 2008; third paperback edition and iPad app 2012), is written in prose poetry, which combines the prose format and poetic devices like meter and repetition of sounds.

AK: In school, poetry is considered to be a critical unit of study, but yet many teachers aren’t sure the best way to approach it with their students.  Do you have any thoughts on how to make poetry accessible to young people, especially in this day and age?

JRH: It helps to point out to students that poetry is all around us.  For example, the nursery rhymes that we learned as children are all poems, and the popular songs that we hear are all poems.  I often ask students to bring in the lyrics of their favorite songs.  Also, many people do not realize that poems have different goals:  poems can tell a story, can describe a scene lyrically, can convey ideas and meditations, can portray characters talking with one another, etc.

Students often react better to modern poems than to poems from 1600 or 1740.  Contemporary poems may be easier for young people to understand because the English language has changed over time and because people living in 2012 face a different landscape than people living in 1600.  It is also important to include poems by writers who are ethnically diverse.  I often teach the work of modern writers like Marge Piercy, Maxine Kumin, Jim Daniels, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Alberto Ríos, John Updike, Elinor Wylie, John Frederick Nims, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mong-Lan, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Kenneth Koch.

AK: Your picture book is all about the moon’s journey, as one being bullied.  She learns to regain confidence in herself through supportive influences, which I think is a great takeaway message about replacing negative messages with positive ones.  There is no mention of the bully, in this case the sun, at the end of the story.  After her journey, what do you think the moon would say to the sun if confronted once again?

JRH: Bullies like the sun often tell people lies or distorted views of reality.  At the beginning of my book How the Moon Regained Her Shape, the moon believes the sun’s insults that the moon is “ugly” and that “no one needs you.”  However, the moon learns that the people and animals on earth do consider her very important and very beautiful.  Also the people and animals do need the moon to help them to see their world at night and to inspire them.  One of the messages of my book is that we should not believe what bullies say or let insults affect our self-esteem.

If the moon encountered the sun again, I hope that the moon would say to the sun, “I’m not interested in hearing your insults.  I’m going to play with my friends.”   There are other methods to discourage bullies.  My friend Jori Reijonen, who is a psychologist, teaches children to respond to name-calling by calmly stating, “Thank you very much.  I didn’t know that.”  This unexpected reaction gives bullies no positive reinforcement for their abuse.

I have written a sequel to How the Moon Regained Her Shape which focuses on the sun.  I’m looking for a publisher for this picture book manuscript.

AK: You’ve given talks to school children about bullying.  What is your advice to them?  Do you offer any resources for children who have been bullied?

JRH: I have done a lot of research about bullying, and this knowledge shapes my advice to children and adults.

  • Bullying thrives in secrecy, so I advise children to tell friends, teachers, parents, neighbors, and other relevant adults about repeated bullying.  It is not tattling to tell an adult that a bully or a gang is planning to attack someone.  If one adult will not listen, children need to keep telling adults until someone assists them.
  • Also, I emphasize that no matter how big, strong, or popular someone is, he or she does not have the right to hurt our bodies or our feelings.  All kids need and deserve respect.
  • I urge children to intervene when they see bullying occur because other kids may need them to stand up against a bully.  Children may find a way to prevent bullies from hurting anyone, and a group of children may be able to stop harassment.
  • I believe that bullied children can use basic training in self-defense.  There are many classes for young people in karate, judo, and other martial arts.  Such training can give children self-confidence and teach them how to block blows and frustrate attackers.

Reading and discussing How the Moon Regained Her Shape can help families and classes to open up the topic, discuss the negative impact of bullying, and to explore ways to recover from abuse.  I have a bibliography of 100 books and videos that schools and other organizations can use to discuss bullying with children of different ages.  I also have written various essays to help families, schools, teams, and other groups to deal with bullies.  I suggest that schools establish and publicize a strong anti-bullying policy to keep kids safe.  Many schools also have a “Bully Box” to allow students to report harassment without signing their names.

I often speak at conferences of teachers and librarians, and I visit schools to advise the students, staff, and faculty about how to handle bullying.

AK: There is an obvious need to help kids overcome bullies.  Do you have any ideas of how society can help the bullies change their behavior?  How do you think society can reduce the number of bullies?

JRH: The United States has a multicultural society.  We need to teach children and adults to value diversity and differences, not to be frightened by or angry about ways that other people are not like us.  At school, teachers should encourage children from different racial and ethnic groups to work together on projects.  Also, teachers and other adults need to consistently discourage all forms of bullying.

We need to teach children and adults not to bully others by pointing out that everyone’s body is different and that we all have different strengths and weaknesses.  We can also disagree with one another without resorting to name-calling or fights.  Our society needs to discuss questions like the following.

  • Is anyone’s body perfect?
  • Do we have a right to make remarks that may hurt other people’s feelings?
  • How can we have friendly arguments?
  • What is appropriate information to e-mail or post on a website?

Many bullies need counseling to help them learn anger management and other social skills.  I would like our society to provide more money to help both bullies and their traumatized targets to get assistance from psychologists and social workers.  Without this intervention, some bullies will develop into criminals, and some targets of bullies will suffer from low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives.

AK: You mention having been bullied as a child.  How did you deal with it back then?  How would you deal with it now?  How did your own experiences influence the writing of this book?

JRH: I was bullied when I was a new student in afternoon kindergarten.  Recess was an especially traumatic period because the other children refused to play with me, one boy pushed me down, and one girl insulted me every day by shouting, “You’re so skinny that I can see right through you!”  After school, one boy would throw stones at me as I walked home.  Slowly, the physical bullying subsided because I defended myself.  But the name-calling continued for four years of elementary school.  I was a shy girl, and I had no idea what to do about the insults.  I did not tell anyone except my mother, and she responded, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  Even at age five, I found this proverb useless:  I was deeply hurt on the inside, and my mother’s response showed me that adults did not care about my suffering.  The name-calling and other forms of bullying lowered my self-esteem and caused me to distrust my peers.

Fortunately, my family outgrew its small house and moved to a larger home after my brother Paul was born.  Then I was in a different school district.  The teachers at my new school intervened if they saw bullying, and they encouraged my classmates to include me in all activities.  I was much happier, and I made many new friends.

If I faced the name-calling situation now, I would tell my bully, “You say the same thing every day.  It’s very boring.  Do you have anything new to say?”  Then I would walk away from her.  If she persisted in bullying me, I would tell my friends, the teacher, my parents, and the recess supervisor.  If they did not help me, I would tell the principal.

I wrote How the Moon Regained Her Shape to help other children so that they would not have to suffer for years as I had.  My book shows children that if they tell friends and adults about their problem with bullying, these people will assist them.  How the Moon Regained Her Shape also shows children that they do not have to believe the insults of bullies.  Because the moon recovers from her traumatic experience, readers of my book learn that they can also regain their happiness and self-esteem after bullying.

AK: You have an obvious interest in Native American mythology.  What are a few of your favorite myths?

JRH: The Navajos have legends about Ever-Changing Woman, who represents the earth and nature.  According to the Navajos, Ever-Changing Woman created human beings and consistently helps them.  The sun and the moon are important in many Zuni legends.  Specific Navajo legends that I enjoy include Small Duck’s role in the creation of mountains and wily Coyote’s role in bringing fire to people.  In general, I like the simple narrative style of Native American legends and the colorful characters.  I also admire the culture’s view that the spheres of humans and animals are not separate but rather interpenetrated.

AK: Writers are often encouraged to seek emotional truth in their writing.  Would you tend to agree?  What do you think is the best way to accomplish that?

JRH: I believe that we write best when we tackle a subject that we have strong feelings about.  For example, my difficult experience with bullying left me hurt and angry, and I used these powerful emotions to create How the Moon Regained Her Shape.  The moon’s suffering mirrors my own childhood.  But the story rewrites the resolution of my own bullying episodes.

I encourage my students and other writers to keep journals.  Often, I write in my journal when I’m very happy or very upset about some aspect of my life.  Putting my ideas down on paper helps me to feel more in control and to understand my experiences better.  Later, I may rework these sentences into poems, essays, stories, or dramas.

I also struggle toward self-knowledge.  We sometimes delude ourselves that we are helping other people when, in fact, we are acting selfishly.  The more a writer can see through his or her illusions, the better he or she can convey the emotional truth of the human experience.