Themes in Young Adult Literature: Bullying

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2882

Titles Discussed

Please Stop Laughing at Me … : One Woman's Inspirational Story by Jodee Blanco

Fade to Black by Alex Flinn

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Crossing Lines by Paul Volponi

Thematic Overview

Bullying is not a new phenomenon. The biblical Old Testament contains the story of Goliath...

(The entire section contains 2882 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Please Stop Laughing at Me … : One Woman's Inspirational Story by Jodee Blanco

Fade to Black by Alex Flinn

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Crossing Lines by Paul Volponi

Thematic Overview

Bullying is not a new phenomenon. The biblical Old Testament contains the story of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), a Philistine champion “six cubits and a span” (about nine feet, nine inches tall). A classic bully who relies upon enormous size to intimidate, Goliath taunts the Israelite armies. When puny shepherd David volunteers to confront him in single combat, Goliath, insulted, vows to feed his opponent's flesh “to the birds and the wild animals”—but he cannot make good his boast, since David kills him. The Israelites have their own bully: musclebound Samson (Judges 13–16). He torments Philistines by releasing burning foxes to destroy crops, kills a thousand soldiers with an animal's jawbone, and rips away the gates of a city before dying in the rubble of a temple he pulls down with his bare hands.

Such examples illustrate humanity's long tradition of violence while encapsulating the confrontational nature of civilization, a perennial struggle between opposing forces: the strong who seek to dominate and those less powerful they target to subdue. History has been shaped by a succession of bullies (Alexander the Great, Roman emperor Nero, Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin) who all gained their reputations partially by preying upon the weak.

Because it has played such a significant role throughout history, the subject of bullying has often figured in classical literature. Achilles and Hector are prominent bullies in Homer's Iliad, for the Greek and Trojan sides, respectively. Children's fairy tales—such as “The Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and others collected by the Brothers Grimm—are rife with taunting and acts of spiteful cruelty perpetrated on the helpless by those in positions of power. Victorian authors likewise tackled the topic. Many of Charles Dickens's adult and youthful characters—Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, Pip in Great Expectations, the hero of Oliver Twist—are victims of such fictional bullies as Mr. Scrooge, Estella, and Bill Sykes. Twentieth-century authors William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), E. B. White (Charlotte's Web), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), S. E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Stephen King (Carrie), Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War), J. K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series), and many others have dealt memorably with the motivations for and consequences of bullying, often focusing on young adult protagonists.

In modern literature, bullying remains a popular topic because it is still a popular pastime. Though methods of torment have grown more subtle in the electronic age, the purpose is still the same: to wound and control individuals through repeated physical force, threats, coercion, rumors, gossip, or lies. The four books discussed here—Jodee Blanco's Please Stop Laughing at Me (2003), Alex Flinn's Fade to Black (2005), Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why (2007), and Paul Volponi's Crossing Lines (2011)—illustrate a wide range of bullying behavior.

Works

Please Stop Laughing at Me is a nonfiction memoir. In the introduction, author Jodee Blanco is in her hometown, Chicago, Illinois, attending her high school reunion. She fears she will run into the bullies who tormented her.

Straightforward, unembellished flashbacks make up the bulk of the book. Jodee recalls when the bullying started, while she was attending Catholic grammar school. Jodee becomes attached to Marianne, a five-year-old with a clubfoot, enrolled in a special program for the deaf. Jodee's best friend, Jo Ellen, warns that their friendship will be destroyed if she continues playing with “retard” Marianne, but after Jodee's mother tells her that “sometimes people are frightened by anyone who is different,” Jodee sticks with Marianne and loses Jo Ellen. When other kids tease Marianne, Jodee tells the nuns, who punish the culprits; as a result, Jodee is shunned.

In sixth grade Jodee transfers to a private school for gifted children and regains her popularity. But after derailing a session of inappropriate sexual games, she again becomes an outcast, the victim of pranks and physical abuse. She suffers tension-related ailments, causing her parents to take her to a pediatric psychiatrist, who medicates her. She begins keeping a journal, recording her thoughts, and wonders why it is always victims, rather than bullies, who wind up in therapy.

Jodee's family moves to the suburbs, and she gets a fresh start among new acquaintances in the neighborhood and at school. But when she refuses to conform to the demands of the most popular students, her reputation and grades suffer, and she once again becomes a victim of bullying.

Many of Jodee's former classmates attend her new high school, and they poison potential friendships in advance. Her grades suffer. She descends into depression. Worse, her breasts are developing at different rates due to a congenital birth defect called tubular asymmetry, necessitating reconstructive surgery. Ultimately, Jodee falls in with tattooed loner Annie and her circle of other social misfits. She survives high school before launching a successful career as an entertainment publicist, publishing executive, and author.

In the ironic conclusion of her memoir, apprehensive Jodee attends the reunion. There, former classmates greet her warmly, having forgotten they were ever cruel to her; during high school they were preoccupied with their own fears and individual issues. Since the publication of Please Stop Laughing at Me, Blanco has been much in demand as a motivational speaker at high schools, lecturing about bullying. A sequel to her book, Please Stop Laughing at Us, was published in 2013.

In contrast to the highly personal nonfiction account related in Please Stop Laughing, the fictional Fade to Black is told in three distinct alternating voices. One voice, tough and slangy, is that of Clinton Cole, a muscular sixteen-year-old student at Pinedale High School in Pinedale, Florida, and the son of an alcoholic bigot prejudiced against Latinos, whom he blames for his job loss. Another voice, consisting of short, almost poetic outbursts, belongs to Daria Bickell, a special-education student with Down syndrome who is called “retarded” and feels invisible. The third voice, natural and expressive, is Alejandro “Alex” Crusan's. He is a tall, skinny seventeen-year-old Hispanic boy, a recent transfer to Pinedale, who is HIV-positive, allegedly from a tainted transfusion.

The story opens with a report about an incident that affects the three narrators. Someone in a Pinedale Panthers jacket attacked and smashed the windows of Alex's vehicle with a baseball bat, cutting Alex with flying glass. Daria Cole witnessed the assault, and though she did not see the assailant's face, she testifies that she glimpsed Clinton near the scene. Clinton denies being the perpetrator. The police are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. Over the course of a week the investigation slowly approaches the truth.

Fade to Black is complicated by the fact that all three narrators are unreliable for various reasons; the relationships among them are too complex to be easily compartmentalized. Clinton, a bully, is afraid of being infected by Alex, and fearful for his overweight, gifted younger sister Melody, whose only friend is Alex's younger sister Lina. Clinton tried to scare Alex away by throwing a rock through a window of the Crusan house while the family was at church. Daria, who has a childlike crush on Alex because he treats her like a normal person, was hanging out near Alex's house when Clinton threw the rock. Because of her mental disability, she has conflated the separate attacks directed at Alex. Recovering in the hospital, Alex encounters classmate Jennifer Atkinson, a candy striper, who is initially afraid of approaching Alex. The injured teen, afraid he will die and “fade to black,” has his own secret: he did not acquire HIV from tainted blood but from unprotected sex with an anonymous woman during a party.

As the story progresses, the dynamics of the high school society change. Clinton's buddies shun him until the real criminal—a graduate from the previous year—is caught. Daria briefly enjoys the spotlight as an important witness to the assault, before her classmates revert to type and again ignore her. Alex, scarred, makes peace with a chagrined Clinton, returns to school, and establishes a friendship with Jennifer, to whom he decides to tell the truth about how he got HIV. Alex thinks, “Even hurting is good. Being hurt is at least being alive. Being real.”

Unlike Fade to Black, which uses living viewpoint characters to tell the story, Jay Asher's suspenseful Thirteen Reasons Why takes a different approach. The novel examines the possible consequences of bullying through an unusual medium: the voice from beyond the grave. In a plausible, nonsupernatural fashion, a victim accuses her tormenters and exacts a form of revenge.

High school student Clay Jensen receives a package in the mail. He is astonished to discover it contains audiocassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a pretty, sensitive classmate who recently committed suicide. The tapes hold Hannah's descriptions of thirteen incidents of subtle cruelty perpetrated against her by her classmates, and the names of the perpetrators that drove Hannah to take her own life. Under threat of exposure—copies of the tapes will be made public if her orders are not followed exactly—each of the thirteen recipients, similar to a chain letter, is supposed to listen to learn of the crimes committed, then forward the tapes to the next person named. Clay, ninth on Hannah's list, does not initially think he belongs among the offenders, since he was shy and lacked the confidence to interact with her, but ultimately realizes his inaction did indeed exacerbate her despair and lead to her eventual death.

Conscience-stricken, Clay faithfully carries out Hannah's instructions. He follows a provided map to the sites of the various offenses, meanwhile learning how shallow, petty, and mean-spirited his fellow students really are. One ruined Hannah's reputation. Another teased her unmercifully. A female student physically abused her. Another girl tore down Hannah to build up her own status. One student is a Peeping Tom, another student is a rapist, and a third is a potential alcoholic. In the process of discovery, Clay finds evidence of another death caused by the carelessness of several named participants.

Part cautionary tale about the cumulative effect of small deeds, part mystery for the way the plot comes together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and part horror story for the unflinching way in which youthful depravity is depicted, Thirteen Reasons Why resonated with young adults. Since its publication, the award-winning novel has been translated into numerous languages and released in over thirty countries across Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Asher has also used the book as a jumping-off point to discuss the realities of bullying and teen suicide, traveling across the United States to speak at various high schools.

Despite the downbeat story, Thirteen Reasons Why nevertheless contains a positive message: teenagers who can transcend their self-absorption long enough to notice signs indicating someone is troubled—such as making major changes in appearance or giving away prized possessions—can make a difference in another person's life. At the end of the book, Clay does exactly that, coming out of his shell to approach another outcast at risk of self-destruction.

Paul Volponi's Crossing Lines employs a more traditional storytelling technique: a tale told from the viewpoint of a single conflicted character. The novel is dedicated to “those who are brave enough to set aside what they've been told and decide for themselves what is right.” The lines referred to in the title relate both to the lines on a football field (the main character is a football player) and to lines drawn in culture regarding what constitutes masculinity.

The narrator of the story is Adonis, a six-foot-two senior varsity football lineman. He is in classes with several football teammates, who taunt a small, effeminate newcomer, Alan Harspring. Team quarterback Ethan, who used to tease Adonis when Adonis was overweight, demonstrates that he is also homophobic. While Adonis does not go along with taunting Alan, neither does he speak out against it.

Snide comments increase in frequency after Alan is elected president of the otherwise all-female Fashion Club. Members of the club include Adonis's younger sister Jeannie and Melody Singer, a pretty senior Adonis has dated, who asks him to protect Alan from the other jocks. The Fashion Club sometimes meets at Adonis's home, causing tension with his homophobic father, a firefighter. Adonis himself is conflicted about his own attitude toward Alan, and feels as if he is “balanced on a tightrope.” His tension increases when Alan takes to wearing lipstick and dresses. Jeannie points out to her brother the hypocrisy of homophobia among “butt-slapping, crotch-grabbing football players who shower together.”

In English class Adonis, Alan, and two girls become teammates for an assignment to research Cincinnati, Ohio, for the purpose of creating a potential new sports team. For inspiration, the ponytailed teacher hands out a Walt Whitman poem with suggestive implications: “Are you the new person drawn to me?” In gym class, where clumsy Adonis is trying to improve agility, Alan shows him the proper way to skip rope, and Adonis afterward also becomes the butt of jokes.

Eventually the situation comes to a head. A corps of football players plans to attack and humiliate Alan during a fashion show to be held at a local mall as part of a pep rally for a school football game. Though Adonis knows the plan in advance, he does nothing to prevent it. When the attack begins and Alan is knocked out, however, Adonis takes a stand: he fights against the football players, who are arrested and suspended. Though he appears a hero, Adonis feels ashamed. He visits the hospital to beg for forgiveness, and shakes hands with his friend, who reintroduces herself as Alana.

Conclusions

Collected scholarly explorations reveal that bullying is common throughout the world. At least 50 percent (ranging as high as 80 percent in some locations) of all children will be victims of some form of bullying at some point during their K–12 years; at least 10 percent will be chronic victims. Bullying often starts in kindergarten, intensifies during the middle grades, and becomes routine during high school.

Both girls and boys are equally likely to be perpetrators or targets for regular abuse. Male abusers usually operate alone, or in the company of hangers-on or sidekicks. Such accomplices encourage their destructive behavior, which typically involves intimidation via actual or threatened physical violence directed at targets of both sexes chosen for perceived differences (such as ethnicity, religion, physical appearance, or language). Female abusers often work in groups, preferring verbal and emotional weapons primarily against other girls of different social status. With the ready availability of modern electronic devices, both sexes employ the anonymity of cyberbullying to post text and photos intended to embarrass the victim and ruin his or her reputation. Regardless of who carries out bullying, and the methods used, the object is the same: to harm, demean, and humiliate. The results are fairly predictable: victims of peer abuse often demonstrate low self-esteem, feelings of isolation, difficulties in socializing, and symptoms of depression, all factors that can contribute to self-harm or suicide when there is no positive support in place. Because virtually all young adults have been exposed to bullying at some point in their lives—as perpetrator, victim, or observer—it has been, and will continue to be, a popular subject for fiction.

Bullying will also remain a topic of interest in literature as adolescents transition to adulthood. Though traditionally associated with school, bullying also commonly occurs in a variety of other environments. Blue-collar jobs and military installations where male populations dominate, for example, often experience a high incidence of physical bullying in combination with other tactics to neutralize competitors and curry favor with superiors. In white-collar (medical, legal, academic, corporate, and professional business) workplaces, bullying methods are usually more subtle and covert. Bullies in such occupations employ a variety of shrewd verbal and psychological tactics, such as rumor, suggestion, gossip, and manipulation of facts, to adversely affect the performance of perceived rivals. By causing enough discomfort to bring down someone else, the perpetrator creates an opportunity to rise within the organization. All such situations provide authors with fertile material for fiction.

Further Reading

  • Bond, Gwenda. “Books against Bullies.” Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 June 2015. <http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/59616-books-against-bullies-self-help-2013.html>.
  • Koehler, Elizabeth. “The Silent Message: Professional Journals' Failure to Address LGBTQ Issues.” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults. YALSA, Summer 2011. Web. 24 June 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2011/08/the-silent-message-professional-journals%E2%80%99-failure-to-address-lgbtq-issues/>.

Bibliography

  • Englander, Elizabeth Kandel. Bullying and Cyberbullying: What Every Educator Needs to Know. Cambridge: Harvard Education P, 2013. Print.
  • Hirsch, Lee, and Cynthia Lowen. Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis. New York: Weinstein, 2012. Print.
  • Martocci, Laura. Bullying: The Social Destruction of Self. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2015. Print.
  • Olweus, Dan. Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Hoboken: Wiley, 1993. Print.
  • Subramanian, Mathangi. Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Lanham: Rowman, 2014. Print. It Happened to Me.
  • Walton, Alice G. “The Psychological Effects of Bullying Last Well into Adulthood, Study Finds.” Forbes. Forbes, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 June 2015. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/02/21/the-psychological-effects-of-bullying-last-well-into-adulthood-study-finds/>.
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