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‘A Cat In A Leather Jacket’ — What I Think The Anti-Bullying Books Get Wrong

Aug 24, 2018

Sometimes I roll my eyes at anti-bullying efforts — campaigns on public transit, reports from school assemblies (because anti-bullying is weirdly often taught via puppets), TV plotlines. It’s terrible of me, but true.

For all that still needs to be done — and there’s lots of that — kids get a lot of messaging about bullying at home and at school through the media they consume. And through books, so many books.

I’m a writer and a parent, and books are amongst my very favourite teaching tools. But there’s something I think books on the topic very often get wrong about bullying.

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Often, picture books about bullying begin something like this: a cat in a leather jacket walks into a classroom of mice. A cartoon boy drawn with giant muscles and a mohawk saunters into the cafeteria. A girl in a crown — always in a crown — perches herself on the highest spot on the monkey bars and declares herself head of the schoolyard monarchy. Stereotypes and cultural appropriation aside, the problem is that these books create this strict dichotomy of good guys and bad guys. In reality, the dynamics between kids are frequently more complex.

But where are the books that ask kids if they’re being bullies or, at least, if their friends are?

I’m not saying that there are never anger-filled children who seem to prey on their peers out of nowhere (I absolutely think the behaviour is rooted in something and not just arbitrary, though). But very often kids wind up bullied by people they consider friends. Most of the available books fail to mention this and instead have kids on high alert for a “bad kid” who may not exist.

Playful teasing gets out of control and becomes excessive, competition goes awry and those dynamics stick, kids manipulate each other with bribes or threats from a very young age — “I’ll bring you a ring pop if…” or “Give me your turn or I won’t invite you to my birthday party” — and it gets out of hand. These are the things little kids, the ones most often reading picture books, should look out for.

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There are anti-bullying books, some of my favourites in the category, that I think miss this point, but get to other important ones. One is Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, where the little fish all band together against the one threatening large one; another is Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum — yes, be empowered, find a mentor who will support you and make the bullies second-guess themselves. I value the lessons other anti-bullying books — the classic Say Something, or more recently The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade — teach about speaking up. But where are the books that ask kids if they’re being bullies or, at least, if their friends are?

There are exceptions — Noni Says No captures an unfriendly friend dynamic; Willow Finds a Way looks at an entire classroom of kids being wrapped up in an ugly frenemy situation. But the very best book I’ve found about friends-turned-bullies is My Secret Bully — it’s definitely heavy for a younger audience, but it’s nuanced and realistic, and unlike many books of the sort, the ending is not cleanly wrapped up with either everyone BFFs or the bully shipped off to sea.

I’m not saying there are no good kids’ books on the subject of bullying, but I can’t get that cat-in-a-leather-jacket image out of my head and I want to see more realistic depictions that kids can actually relate to.

Article Author Tara-Michelle Ziniuk
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She’s a queer single mom to a 7.5-year-old. She’s overshared about her daughter for Today’s Parent, Bunch Family, Baby Post and various other print and digital publications. She’s also a poet (her kid says “of sad books”) and book reviewer (for Publisher’s Weekly, The Canadian Children’s Book News and more). You can find her on Twitter @therealrealtmz.

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