Use Your Words! A Discussion of Bullies and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

Read my thoughts on Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and how wonderfully he teaches children to fight bullying using words alone.

How are children taught to deal with bullies in children’s literature? Sometimes, stories will depict the child turning to adults for help. However, we know that there are too many situations where the child feels they will receive retribution for appealing to someone else. Where can the child turn? How can they ask for help? Sometimes they can’t even phrase the question, if they are manipulated to the point where they feel they are bringing it on themselves. On the other hand, when a child does ask for advice from an elder in fiction, mostly the advice is either: turn the other cheek, or stand up to him and just say no. Surely, summoning the courage to stand up for yourself is half the battle; however, once you’ve said no and you still come away from the exchange with two black eyes, it would seem that fiction’s well of wisdom has run dry.

It’s all well and good for adults to suggest using your words, but rarely do they ever suggest words with enough impact to really hit home to a ‘bully’. The real truth is that it is extremely difficult to counteract any kind of bullying with merely words. As adults, we don’t like to tell children to give as good as they get, (or in other words, supply them with anything other than a sugar coated ‘no, thank you’), because we feel that delving into any kind of unpleasant behavior will encourage children to use verbal or physical violence to resolve a problem. However, we should start to realize that bullies are not made by merely introducing them to forceful behavior, but by years of indoctrinating the child in question into thinking that this is the correct way to behave socially. So, we need to be able to talk about this problem in a way that will be relevant and potent to children actually experiencing these problems.

An excellent example of anti-bullying counseling through fiction is in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. In it, the main character, Bod, meets a boy who is being terrorized by the school bullies. They have made the boy steal a cd for them and have videotaped him doing it, so that they can blackmail the boy into giving them his lunch money every day. Firstly, let me say that this is an excellent example of a difficult situation. Some children aren’t clever enough to come up with an extortion scheme like this, but those that are hold a particularly potent sway over their victims. This is also an instance in which the child would be uncomfortable in consulting an adult, as the child feels he has done something wrong. Bod councils the boy to tell the bullies that he has the whole incident written up, and that if he is ever attacked again, he will turn in his confession to the police, (as they would be more interested in an elaborate extortion scheme than in one boy sealing a cd). He adds that if the boy gets a scratch on him, or is incapacitated in any way, that he has given a copy of it to his friends and they will turn it into the police for him. He is covered in any possible recourse to vengeance on the bullies’ part. This is excellent advice, as it is a well thought out and practical solution that leaves no loopholes. I say well done Neil Gaiman! Children’s fiction can use more of that kind of practical counsel.

Here, also, let me add a short discussion supporting why fiction is such an excellent medium to reach children experiencing difficult situations. I recently watched a talk given by social media theorist Dannah Boyd, and in it she related an anecdote concerning an interaction with a teacher and his students conducted completely through a social networking site. Apparently, the students found that the medium gave them more room to be candid and also provided a space for them to interact with the teacher about academically related topics in a more casual way. Boyd described that the students had asked the teacher why they needed to learn calculus, or what the practical applications would be. The teacher replied that while they may not directly use calculus in their everyday adult lives, they may gain new insight on how to see the world, or problem solve, and may be able to apply that to their future lives. Boyd makes the point that in a face to face interaction at school, students don’t necessarily have the confidence, feel comfortable enough, or have the social space to initiate that kind of conversation. In the same way that the internet provides an amenable platform for adults to council children, fiction can, often does, and should provide council to children who don’t feel comfortable approaching an adult for help.

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