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I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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At ALA Annual last weekend, I met Ellen Hopkins(!!) when she was signing for Simon and Schuster.  I first discovered Hopkins’ work in 2010, around the time of the incident in Humble, Texas when Hopkins’ invitation to speak at a literature festival was rescinded after a complaint about the content of her books.  I am not one to gush, but Ellen Hopkins is an Amazing writer.  Her novels in verse are unflinchingly honest, tackling important contemporary issues.  No, her books aren’t for everyone.  They’re gritty and raw and offer hopeful, not happy, endings, but anyone who works with teens or is parenting a teen should be aware of her work.  Standouts are Crank and Perfect, though all of her YA books are great.

I did not know that last year Hopkins published an adult novel, Triangles (newly available in paperback).  I just finished reading it and was blown away.  Did I say already that Hopkins is an Amazing writer?  I don’t make recommendations often and I know that many people prefer light reading.  Triangles is intense but perhaps the style—poetic verse, as all of Hopkins’ books are written—prevents the novel from feeling too heavy.  Some of my friends have been discussing 50 Shades of Grey recently (a book that doesn’t interest me in the least) and they may enjoy Triangles.


The story opens at the beginning of a desert summer in a Nevada suburb.  Holly, bored mom of three, decides she wants to write erotica and justifies extramarital sex as “research.”  Andrea, Holly’s best friend, is a devoted single mom searching for a meaningful relationship with a man.  Marissa, Andrea’s sister, copes with both her daughter’s and her marriage’s terminal illness.  While the plot and characters may be a bit Desperate Housewives and perhaps less entertaining , the poetry of Triangles shows Hopkins at her best—beautiful language that gracefully handles sensitive issues without judgment.  Let me know if you read it; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Blindness by Jose Saramago

Classification:  Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Epidemic, human nature, loss of sight, civilization and savagery
Content to be aware of:  graphic violence

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner of the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives…” from Blindness

Summary:  Beginning with one random motorist and spreading rapidly throughout an unnamed country, an epidemic of blindness deprives a nation of sight.  Only one is spared and thus forced to witness the descent of a people from civilization into savagery.  In an attempt at containment, the government quarantines the afflicted.  During their internment, a small group of protagonists forms, including an ophthalmologist (ironically) and his wife, a young woman, a boy, an old man, and another husband and wife.  The group bands together in a fight to survive even when all hope seems lost.

Notes:  Though I highly recommend this novel, it is not an enjoyable story to read.  Gritty and harrowing, it reminded me of the similarly disturbing work of William Golding in Lord of the Flies for its theme of the fragility of civilization.  What tethers humanity to civilization?  Truly could we so easily transform into beasts?  The author employs reader-response technique, writing with minimal punctuation and depriving the reader of conventional descriptions and characterizations (such as names and additional identifying features), which can make for slower reading, but is effective for simulating the confusion and unknown experienced by the characters.  Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
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Blindness (Miramax, 2008)
Director:  Fernando Meirelles
Main Cast:  Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover
Rating: R

Synopsis:  “White sickness” sweeps through a metropolis, blinding an entire population.  Initially the sightless are interned in an unused asylum, and conditions degenerate as more and more people are crammed into the facility.  Among the interned is the only woman whose sight has been spared.  She attempts to care for and protect her husband and the small group of people with whom they have banded together.  When another group of internees seizes control of the food supply and demands payment in exchange for food, a horrifying war ensues as the interned struggle to survive.

Review:  A project requiring the adaptation of a story about blindness to a medium wholly dependent upon visual effects cannot be anything but doomed from the outset. (Click the movie poster image to link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Blindness.)
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Book or Movie? Book.  Blindness is about people in general, rather than individual characters.  In the novel, the plot propels the reader forward, not an attachment to the characters.  The characters are “Everymen,” but this characterization technique is not successful in the film.  Without a dynamic, charismatic personality with which to identify, the audience fails to develop any emotional investment in the story.

Why I chose this book and filmBlindness is my husband’s book.  He is Portuguese and I imagine he wanted to read Saramago solely for that reason.  Indeed, Saramago is the only Portuguese writer I can name.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself prowling around our book room in search of something to read and decided to give Blindness a go.

I was surprised at how quickly I was absorbed in the story.  This is not an easy book to read, firstly for the lack of punctuation and paragraphs, secondly for the dark, gruesome imagery.

I was also surprised to discover the controversy that surrounded the theatrical release of Blindness in 2008.  In this press release, the President of the National Federation of the Blind expresses his anger at the portrayal of blind people as “incompetent, filthy, vicious, and depraved.”  He goes on to claim that “to portray the blind in this manner, even as alleged allegory or so-called social commentary, is outrageous and reprehensible–and it is a lie.”

With all due respect to the President of NFB, I have to question whether he read and understood Saramago’s novel.  Blindness is not a story about blind people.  It is a story about a nation of people who suffer a tremendous catastrophe and the ensuing chaos.  It reflects on the dark side of humanity and is an important social commentary in a world whose people are increasingly dependent on this one of five senses.  In response to the objections of the blind community to the movie, Saramago was quoted as saying, “Stupidity doesn’t choose between the blind and the non-blind.”

For Jose Saramago’s autobiography, click here.  For Saramago’s 1998 Nobel Lecture, click here.

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The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Book & Film Adaptation)

Classification: Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Cultural identity, Maori, whales, sexism

Ages 12+

 “[The whale] is a reminder of the oneness the world once had.  It is the birth cord joining past and present, reality and fantasy.  It is both.  It is both…and if we have forgotten the communion then we have ceased to be Maori.” ~ from The Whale Rider

Summary:  Deep in the ocean, an ancient bull whale guides his herd through increasingly treacherous waters.  He grows sick with nostalgia for his master Paikea, the whale rider, with whom the old whale shared a special communion.  But generations ago, Paikea left the sea to people the land of Whangara on the east coast of New Zealand.  Depressed and confused, the whale begins to lead his herd toward the beach where he last saw Paikea.  Meanwhile, Paikea’s descendants are in turmoil for they are in need of a new leader.  Koro Apirana, the aging patriarch of the Maori tribe, is determined to school the young men of his community in the old ways.  Koro’s wife Nanny Flowers and his grandson Rawiri look on as Koro continually ignores his small great-granddaughter Kahu, whose given name is the same as Paikea’s traditional tribal name:  Kahutia Te Rangi.  Though only a child, Kahu demonstrates all the wisdom and skills Koro seeks in the tribe’s next leader, but Koro insists a girl is not meant to fill the role.  When the whale herd’s destiny collides with that of the tribe’s and little Kahu is caught in the middle, Koro Apirana is forced to choose between the old ways and a new future.

Notes:  Told alternately from Rawiri’s and the bull whale’s point of view with Maori verse woven in at key points, this story resonates through land and sea with the haunting quality of a whale’s cry in the deep.  When Koro tells a tale to his gathered people, he asks if his story “belongs in the real world or the unreal world?”  “Both,” he insists.  This novel too straddles legend and truth, fact and fiction, in the way of great literature.
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Whale Rider (South Pacific Films, 2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Main Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rating: PG-13

Viewer’s Annotation:  A young Maori girl, Pai Apirana is committed to helping her community preserve the ways of their ancestors even though her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, refuses to teach Pai because she is a girl.

Synopsis:  Koro Apirana’s visible and devastating disappointment that his grandchild is a girl causes 12-year-old Pai to struggle to hold her head up around the stern man.  Though Koro has two sons, he will be the last chief of his tribe unless a new leader emerges.  Determined to find such a leader, Koro trains all of the tribe’s boys in the ways of their people, the descendants of Paikea the Whale Rider.  Banished from Koro’s school, Pai still learns the chants and skills, surpassing the boys in every area and winning a regional speech contest with an essay about her Maori culture.  Unmoved, Koro continues to ignore Pai.  When a pod of whales beach themselves, the whole community despairs, for the hopelessness of the whales seems to mirror the tribe’s situation.  Only Pai is able to pull everyone, even the whales, through the tragedy.

Review:  With incredible acting from the entire cast, this film is deeply moving, depicting the tension between tradition and change for a community whose very identity is threatened by modern culture. 
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Book or Movie?  Either.  One of the rare instances when each is outstanding.  What I do love about the book that is not translated to film is the bull whale’s development as a character.  On the other hand, the film brings to life the Maori community, from the eager young boys Koro trains, to Nanny’s card-playing, covert-smoking friends.

Why I chose this book and film:  I suppose I was drawn back to this story after hearing about the Sea World whale trainer who lost her life a couple weeks ago, but the story is an excellent read for Women’s History Month for its themes of sexism, self-discovery and leadership. 

I fell in love with the movie when I saw it in a theater years ago, and I read the book within days of viewing the film.  I saw the movie with my dad, who is Filipino, born and raised in Hawaii.  I never knew my dad’s father who passed away when my dad was a teenager, but from the stories I’ve heard he was not unlike Koro Apirana. 

I know a bit of Maori culture–brief history, a few songs, dances, and poi ball tricks–from the days when I was a hula and Polynesian dancer, but this story is familiar for more than the chanting and the musical swish of rapaki.  It is the sad story of indigenous people the world over, whether they are islanders or not, and their struggle to retain a sense of themselves in a global community that trivializes all they hold dear. 

For more about Witi Ihimaera and Maori culture, click here and here.


Filed under Adult Fiction, Books & Their Films, YA Literature