October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time to grow awareness of the prevalence and effects of bullying in childhood and adolescence. Youth.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying can be verbal or physical, and can involve spreading rumors, making threats, or intentionally excluding individuals from social groups. As student’s lives are increasingly tied to technology, cyberbullying has also become a damaging form of bullying.
About one out of every five students report being bullied. The mental health effects of bullying are of considerable concern, as students who experience bullying are at increased risk for depression and anxiety. Literature is a great avenue for building empathy for young people experiencing bullying. Fictional stories can also illustrate the nuances of lived experiences of bullying by facilitating social perspective-taking in ways that may help students feel less alone or understand the suffering of their peers. The books on this list feature stories for children, middle schoolers, or teens that shed light on the human impact of bullying. Further information and bullying prevention resources for teachers, parents, and other adults working with youth can be found at the end of this post.
Felix Ever After. 2020 (Young Adult Fiction).
Felix Love has never been in love, and he is painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what romantic love is like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. Even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he ticks too many boxes of marginalized identities (Black, queer, and transgender) to ever get his own happily-ever-after. When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages and publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned, Felix devises a plan for revenge. What he does not expect is his planned catfish scenario resulting in a quasi-love triangle. As he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself. Felix’s experiences of cyberbullying are vivid and hurtful, but the heart of this story is the compassionate support from Felix’s friends and his path towards radical self-love.
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle. 2018 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Mason Buttle is the biggest, sweatiest kid in the seventh grade, and his dyslexia makes it difficult to read and write. Mason has also been navigating profound grief. Fifteen months ago, his best friend, Benny, died in an accident at the Buttle family’s orchard. An investigation drags on, and Mason, honest to the core, does not understand why Lieutenant Baird does not believe Mason’s account of that day. Both Mason and his new friend, tiny Calvin Chumsky, are relentlessly bullied by the other boys in their neighborhood, so they create an underground club space for themselves. When Calvin goes missing, Mason finds himself under suspicion again. He is desperate to figure out what happened to Calvin, and ultimately, Benny. But will anyone believe him? Connor tells a tale of an impossibly sensitive narrator staying true to himself when it seems like the cards are stacked against him.
Falcone, L. M.
Illustrated by: Jacqueline Hudon
I Didn’t Stand Up. 2019 (Picture Book).
This simple but profound picture book tells a story written from the perspective of a bystander witnessing other children being bullied, but not stepping in to intervene. The narrator ignores the problem of classmates being called names and physically bullied for being Black, gay, poor, Muslim, or disabled. But what will the narrator feel upon becoming the victim? Based on the poem “First They Came” written by Pastor Martin Niemoller in condemnation of the Nazi regime, Falcone’s story recontextualizes the poem in the milieu of childhood bullying to show the dangerous consequences of being a passive bystander. In the end, all the children stand together against the hurtful perpetrators. The back-matter of the book provides an author’s note about the original poem and further information about the effects of bullying.
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Starfish. 2021 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she has been bullied for being fat. To cope, she tries to live by her invented “Fat Girl Rules” that include making herself small, avoiding eating in public, and never moving fast enough that her body jiggles. Ellie has found a safe space, swimming in her own pool in solitude, where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. She also uses the pool to escape from her intense mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who help Ellie discover her voice and stand up to her bullies, including her mother and hurtful older brother. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and unapologetically be her own fabulous self. Fipps’ debut novel-in-verse heartbreakingly conveys the raw emotions spurred from being bullied by strangers and family alike, and readers will rejoice as Ellie begins to build her confidence and call out the underlying societal messages that unfairly shame people for their bodies.
He Who Dreams. 2017 (Young Adult Fiction).
Juggling commitments to soccer, school, friends, and family leaves John McCaffrey with little time to do anything else. Plus, John is never quite sure where he belongs because he lives on the reservation with his Cree mother but resembles his red-headed Irish father. But one day at the local community center, following the sound of drums, he stumbles into an Indigenous dance class. Before long, John finds himself stumbling through beginner classes with a bunch of little girls, skipping soccer practice and letting his other responsibilities slide. When he attends a pow wow and witnesses a powerful performance, he realizes that he wants to be a dancer more than anything. However, the nearest class for boys is at the Native Cultural Center in the city, and he still hasn’t told his family or friends about his new passion. If he wants to dance, he will have to stop hiding. Between the mocking of his teammates and the hostility of the boys in his dance class, John must find a way to balance and embrace both the Irish and Cree sides of his heritage. This novel is part of the Orca Limelight series of high interest novels for reluctant young adult readers that spotlight the arts and cultural heritage stories.
Illustrated by: Paula Heaphy
Nobody! A Story about Overcoming Bullying in Schools. 2015 (Picture Book).
This straightforward picture book is a compassionate introduction to the effects of bullying in schools for young children. Thomas feels like no matter what he does, Kyle will always put him down. Nowhere feels safe from Kyle’s incessant bullying. “Mom said Kyle would grow over the summer and stop picking on me, but he didn’t grow up, he just grew.” With support from friends, classmates, and adults, Thomas starts to feel more confident in himself and his hobbies and stands up for himself. The story asserts that Kyle’s actions are harmful, while also carefully humanizing him as a child having trouble coping with his feelings. By the end, Kyle begins to learn the importance of kindness to others. The book concludes with “activity club” pages for kids, paired with information to help parents, teachers, counselors, and other adults initiate dialogue with children about ways to stop bullying.
Melissa. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
(This book was originally published with the title George in 2015). When people look at Melissa, they think they see a boy named George. But she knows she’s not a boy, she’s a girl. Melissa thinks she will have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. Melissa desperately wants to play Charlotte, but the teacher says she cannot even try out for the part because she’s a boy. Together, Melissa and her best friend, Kelly, devise a plan for Melissa to be cast as Charlotte and for the rest of the school to know her true self. Melissa faces tough challenges throughout this heartfelt story: the taunts of a school bully, her own self-doubt, and her mother’s inability to understand her transgender identity. Still, Gino’s streamlined writing gives a sense of a quiet reassurance that Melissa, as the charming narrator, is becoming exactly who she is meant to be.
Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Sometimes middle school can make you feel like you are alone in the universe, but what if we aren’t alone at all? Mallory Moss feels like she knows how the world works. For a few years Mallory has been best friends with the cool girl at school, Reagan, who makes Mallory feel like she belongs, but only if she follows Reagan’s simple rules: wear the right clothes, control your image, and know your place. When Jennifer Chan moves into the house across the street, those rules don’t feel quite right anymore, because Jennifer is different. She does not seem to care about the laws of middle school, and she is willing to embrace the unknown, even the extraterrestrial. Then Jennifer goes missing. The adults say she ran away, but as Mallory uses clues from Jennifer’s alien investigation journals to try to find her, Mallory must confront her shame knowing that she is part of reason Jennifer might have run. Newbery Medalist Keller tells a mesmerizing story from Mallory’s perspective that alternates timelines between “Now” and “Then,” in reference to a moment that Mallory calls “The Incident.” Readers will slowly realize that Mallory had a hand in the bullying Jennifer experienced, and she must reckon with the harm she caused and decide who she really wants to be.
Illustrated by: Michelle Simpson
Genie Meanie. 2021 (Chapter Book).
Eight-year-old Kiara is ready to start third grade in style, but she is tired of worrying about the racist bully at school, Matt. When she discovers that her recently deceased grandmother left her a genie in a bottle labeled Zayn Garam Masala, Kiara is delighted and relieved to have a magical companion to solve her problems and do her bidding. Unfortunately, the genie has decided he is on vacation after working for ten thousand years and wants someone to do his bidding. A battle of wills ensues, and Kiara realizes that she and her best friend Bai can address their problems with the school bully without magic. The bullying in this story is portrayed in a realistic way, although the resolution is simplistic. This charmingly magical beginning chapter book would be appealing for fans of Kelly Starling Lyons or Kate DiCamillo.
Don’t Read the Comments. 2020 (Young Adult Fiction).
Divya Sharma is a queen, at least when she is playing Reclaim the Sun, the current hottest online game using her virtual gaming persona, D1V. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she is trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to financially help her struggling single mom. Aaron Jericho’s life centers entirely on gaming, and he has no interest in becoming a doctor like his parents hope, instead he spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape parental pressures by playing Reclaim the Sun, but to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V. At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they face infinite new worlds together, as well as the horrifying growing legion of trolls interrupting the online game. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line and she will not go down without a fight. This young adult novel grippingly conveys the intense real-life impact of cyberbullying on a large scale.
References / Resources
PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center
PACER is a nonprofit organization, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs that champions children with disabilities and provides training for families. PACER founded the first Bullying Prevention Awareness Week in 2006, which was extended to a national month in 2010. This homepage for bullying prevention includes statistics, information about advocacy, and a variety of resource kits for parents and educators. See also PACER’s youth-friendly websites: KidsAgainstBullying.org and TeensAgainstBullying.org.
This website run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services centers on the clear message that when people quickly and consistently stand up to bullying behavior, they can reduce instances of bullying over time. The easy navigation directs users to information about bullying and cyberbullying (including warning signs and adverse effects) plus concrete steps for how to prevent bullying (with policies, community connections, and educating students) and video resources designed for kids to understand that bullying should not be tolerated.
Youth.gov – National Bullying Prevention Month (Feature Article)
This article from Youth.gov establishes a clear definition of bullying, as distinguished from other forms of aggression, and details the history of National Bullying Prevention Month in the United States. This page also includes links to other federal resources that contribute to bullying prevention efforts.