Selecting and Sharing Children's Picture Books About Bullying

Melissa Allen Heath

In the immensely popular Harry Potter series, young Harry continuously suffers bullying. The story starts with Harry being bullied in the Dursley's home by his aunt, uncle, and cousin, Dudley (Rowling, 1997). After escaping this dreadful situation, Harry enters Hogwarts wizards' school where he faces another bully, Draco Malfoy. It is interesting to note that our favorite movies and stories routinely depict bullies and victims. A general consensus among movie goers—the bad guys are bullies. We love to hate those bullies, and we love to cheer for the underdog! We relish the experience of underdogs rising above and beyond their unbearable and humiliating situation.

In contrast to stories and movies, in reality bullied children seldom see bystanders rallying to their support (Polanin, Espelage, & Pigott, 2012). In the U.S. and internationally, bullying behaviors are a top concern for parents, teachers, and school administrators (Nickerson, Cornell, Smith, & Furlong, 2013). However, these behaviors are difficult to address, even with established programs. After decades of attempting to decrease bullying, researchers report that the majority of efforts are ineffective to minimally effective (Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008).

Nevertheless, when bullying behaviors are addressed in a school-wide positive behavioral support (PBS) system, improved student behavior is noted (Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010). In PBS the attack against bullying is positively reframed. Rather than focusing on what we do not want students to do, PBS identifies desired behaviors. Instead of telling students "no bullying," teachers reframe this goal with a positive spin. Even though the end goal has been and will continue to be "no bullying," the route to reaching our destination is through emphasizing, supporting, and reinforcing desired behaviors which run counter to bullying. These desired behaviors may include standing up for others, saying kind words, including others in play, and showing respect for others who might appear unusual or act differently.

You might ask, "What does all this information about bullying have to do with reading?" My response to this question—to assist teachers in selecting bully-themed picture books for young children. In this article I review a variety of children's K-3 picture books. Noting the powerful influence of bystanders' contributions in resolving bullying situations (Heath, Moulton, Dyches, Prater, & Brown, 2011; Polanin et al., 2012), I encourage teachers to select books that reinforce appropriate bystander support. I also share a lesson plan template to help teachers implement the basic steps of sharing a story with their students, which include applying and reinforcing a story's core message to counter bullying behaviors. Prior to reviewing children's picture books, I briefly cover basic information on bullying: (a) its definition and prevalence rates, (b) the roles of those involved in bullying, and (c) the impact of bullying on children.

Bullying: Definition, Prevalence, Roles, and Impact

Based on the most common definition in the literature (Olweus, 1993), bullying is behavior repeatedly perpetrated on an individual or group of individuals; the behavior is intended to inflict physical or emotional pain; and there is an imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator. An imbalance of power indicates that the perpetrator is stronger physically, smarter, or more powerful socially than the victim. Succinctly stated, bullying behavior must satisfy the three Ps:persistence, pain, and power (Heath, Dyches, & Prater, 2013).

Nature and prevalence. Bullying may be physical (hitting, shoving, overpowering), verbal (name calling, teasing and taunting, threatening), or social/relational (manipulating social situations, excluding from the peer group, spreading rumors). A few facts about the prevalence and victimization of bullying should be considered:

  • Bullying is found in all cultures and in all strata of society.
  • Up to one-third of students report being victimized by bullies.
  • Bullying peaks in late elementary school and junior high and diminishes in high school.
  • Overall, boys are more often the perpetrators and more often the victims.

Bullying is perpetrated everywhere—in the classroom, school restroom, hallway, locker room, school grounds, school bus, community, home, and on the Internet (cyberbullying). As might be expected, rates and intensity of bullying tend to escalate when children have limited or no adult supervision. However, even under tight adult supervision, an under-the-radar bully's rolling eyes, protruding tongue, or extending finger quickly and sneakily taunt and torment victims.

Roles. Bullying incidents typically include three major roles: the bully, the victim, and the bystanders (onlookers). Bullying most frequently occurs with an audience of bystanders who respond in a variety of ways. They may be quiet and ignore the situation, passively endorsing the bullying; they may cheer or laugh, escalating the bullying situation; or they may speak up in defense of the victim, helping neutralize the situation. Some bystanders are quite vocal and firmly tell the bully to "stop!"

Bystanders, who greatly outnumber bullies and victims, pack an incredible social weight of peer power (Davis & Davis, 2007). In fact, even one individual bystander's small acts of kindness, such as privately letting the victim know that bullying is not right, help the victim feel social support (Davidson & Demaray, 2007). Looking back on incidents of bullying, we remember those who offered kind words of support. However, the children who witness bullying as bystanders are most often hesitant to intervene because they may fear the bully's retaliation. Another reason for not intervening is that bystanders lack confidence that their efforts will stop the bullying (Davidson & Demaray, 2007).

Impact. Although those who are victimized know the intense personal sting of bullying, teachers and parents often underestimate its impact. Adults may explain that "bullying is something all children have to endure as part of growing up" (Neufeld, p. 207) or encourage students to "toughen up" and "ignore bullying" (Neufeld, p. 207). However, research indicates that students victimized by bullying suffer both immediate and long-term consequences, including lower academic achievement, poor self-esteem, higher rates of anxiety and depression, and ongoing challenges in maintaining friendships (Nansel, Craig, Overpeck, Saluja, & Ruan, 2004).

Sometimes tragically, bullying is also linked to victims' frustration, anger, and aggressive behavior (Nansel, Overpeck, Haynie, Ruan, & Scheidt, 2003). In extreme incidents, such as school shootings, the shooter's unleashed rage is often fueled by a history of being bullied (Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002).

Bibliotherapy

Although bullying is formidable, I propose a powerful offensive strategy—teachers sharing carefully selected picture books with clear messages that strengthen bystander support (Heath et al., 2013). Aligned with the basic tenants of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), bibliotherapy uses good stories to pull us in, captivate our attention, evoke emotion, conjure thoughtful consideration of our currently held assumptions, and facilitate the motivational leverage to change behavior. Our response to stories demonstrates the underlying principles of CBT, clearly showing the interconnection of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006, 2012). Additionally, sticky stories, the ones that we never forget, are powerful tools to help students remember important objectives and lessons learned (Heath & Heath, 2007). Using stories to teach and support children's adaptive coping is referred to as bibliotherapy.

Using stories help children cope. Bibliotherapy is commonly used by mental health professionals to address a variety of challenging situations and related emotional needs (Heath et al., 2005). Not limited to mental health professionals, bibliotherapy can also be utilized by teachers. Regardless of who reads the story, the story's message can be shared with children to encourage healthy adaptive coping skills (Heath et al., 2013; Prater, Johnstun, Dyches, & Johnstun, 2006).

Bibliotherapy in classrooms helps children understand that they are not alone in facing their challenging situations. Stories offer options for problem-solving strategies and motivate students to follow through with newly acquired insights.

Bibliotherapy is a process. Initially, the teacher draws the children into the story by showing the cover of the book and asking a few questions about the story. As the story is read and the storyline progresses, children's interest is further engaged. They begin to identify with the story's main character. Children's engagement increases as the story's developing plot and situation parallel certain aspects of real life. By connecting with the character's situation, children begin to experience the character's thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately, the goal of bibliotherapy is to have children internalize the core message and then apply this newfound knowledge. To assist children in applying the story's core message, teachers should encourage discussions and provide related activities, strengthening the link between the story's core message and its relevance to daily life. Table 1 provides a teacher's template for bibliotherapy and summarizes the information reviewed.

Table 1: Template for Bibliotherapy Lesson Plan

Lesson planDescription of activities

Prereading: Questions, discussion, and vocabulary

Show students the book cover or a picture in the book. Ask questions to stimulate interest in the story. These questions also help teachers assess students' preliminary knowledge. Review new vocabulary words that are included in the story.

Reading the book

Show each picture, making sure pictures are visible to all students. Read the story with expression and enthusiasm.

Following up

Plan 15 minutes of activities and discussion that stretch and personalize the story's core message into real-world application. Activities may include discussions, drawings and artwork, role plays, and games aligned with the story's core message. These activities also provide opportunities to assess students' understanding.

Obtaining closure

Summarize core message and clearly identify what is expected of students in regard to attitudes and behaviors. You may also offer a classroom challenge or help students set individual goals aligned with personal statements. Place a tangible reminder in the classroom (poster, statement, associated picture, etc.).

Selecting books carefully. Written around 380 B.C., Plato's The Republic offers advice about the responsibility and the need to carefully select books for children. Plato's recommendations should be considered as we identify bully-themed picture books to share with our classes.

And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot . . . . Anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. (Plato. trans. 2008, pp. 49–50)

Reflecting on Plato's message, we must select bully-themed books which model the desired behaviors we want to endorse. Therefore bully-themed books which condone physical retaliation and revenge are not suitable for school, because we do not want physical fights to erupt nor do we want to encourage vigilante justice.

Hence, when selecting a book we need to initially determine what principles we want our students to learn. We can then question if the book's core message and the way in which the bullying situation is resolved align with what we ultimately want our students to do. Are the story's specific details in line with our classroom objectives and with the school's rules and code of conduct? As Plato questioned, does the story model those thoughts and behaviors "which we wish them to have when they are grown up" (p. 49)? More specifically, we must consider how the victim responds to the bully and how bystanders and adults assist in resolving the bullying situation.

Helping children identify with the story. Moving beyond the message we hope to endorse, each child, classroom, and school has a unique personality which also must be considered when selecting a bully-themed book. We want to make sure the children will identify with and form a strong association with the story. For instance, Cosby's (1997) book The Meanest Thing to Say and Munson's (2000) book Enemy Pie definitely cater to different audiences. In both books the main character ultimately befriends his perceived enemy. Although both books endorse a non-violent response to bullying, the actual strategies to resolve the bullying situation are very different.

In Enemy Pie the characters appear to be White and middle to upper middle class. The main character's mother is not included in the story, only his father—who plays a prominent role in the story's resolution. On the other hand, the characters in The Meanest Thing to Say are multiracial (mostly African American) and from a lower socioeconomic class. The main character's father offers the advice of how to respond to someone who says mean things about another kid and calls him names. This book's anti-bullying strategy (saying "So?") is geared to an individual's street smarts, appeals to the appearance of a cool and aloof attitude, and supports the victim in saying something that does not escalate the situation yet does not make the victim appear weak (saving face). Stories are more likely to "ring true" if the book matches the culture and specific needs of the students.

To further increase the likelihood of children identifying with the story, it is important to consider the following details in the storyline and illustrations: (a) the gender and ethnicity of bully, victim, and bystanders, (b) the type of bullying, and (c) the location of bullying. For example, illustrations from O'neill's (2002) The Recess Queen include bystanders of different backgrounds and skin color. Although the two main characters are girls, the bystanders are a mix of boys and girls. In addition to being bystanders, at various times all of them have been terrorized by Mean Jean. The exaggerated overpowering nature of Mean Jean, the recess queen, appeals to both male and female readers. The art work is bright and engaging. Additionally, the story's rhyming language and fun made-up words (ringity-ring, zingity-zing, bouncity bouncity bounce, kickity kikity kick, swingity swingity swing, lollapaloosh, etc.) promote listeners' engagement and increase buy-in to the story's message about tackling playground bullying.

Addressing bullying behaviors with bibliotherapy. The Recess Queen is a great book to help teachers address the universal problem of physical aggression and Darwinian survival on the playground. After reading the book, the teacher could ask for specific examples of how students on the playground share and show respect for their classmates (focusing on positive desired behaviors rather than negative behaviors).

In order to teach a desired core message, the teacher must clearly identify that message. "Kindness and fairness rule our playground." It is also beneficial to individualize this core message with a personalized action statement, such as "I take turns and share so everyone enjoys recess." Action statements are written in first-person language.

Table 2 lists 15 bully-themed picture books which were recommended in a recently released book (Heath et al., 2013), including each book's associated core message and personal action statement.

Table 2: 20 Bully-Themed Books, Core Messages, and Action Statements

Core MessageAction Statement

Joon and the Jade Bracelet by Helen Recorvits (2008), Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Real friends don't use friends to get what they want.

I speak up when someone treats another person unfairly. If that doesn't work, I ask an adult for help.

The Bully Blocker's Club by Teresa Bateman (2004), Albert Whitman & Company

Some strategies to stop bullying work in some situations, but not in others.

My friends and I band together and support each other.

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (1996), Mulberry Books

Making fun of others is unkind.

I speak up when unkind words hurt another student.

 

The Recess Queen by Alexis O'Neill (2002), Scholastic Press

Kindness and fairness rule our playground.

I take turns and share so everyone enjoys recess.

Lucy and the Bully by Claire Alexander (2008), Albert Whitman and Company

We are not alone in facing bullies.

When bullied, I tell trusted friends, teachers, and parents.

Feathers by Heather Forest (2005), August House Publishers

Gossip spreads unkind words that hurt.

I speak kind words.

Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns About Bullies by Howard Brinkow (2008), Thunderbolt

When we see bullying, we tell an adult.

I am brave, I am bold, and I make sure my teacher is told about bullying.

I Like Who I Am by Tara White (2008), Theytus Books

We are more than what we look like on the outside. Who we are is what we think and believe.

I respect others' feelings and look at who they are on the inside.

Nobody Knew What to Do by Becky Ray McCain (2001), Whitman & Co

When students see bullying, they should tell their parent and teacher.

I tell adults when I see bullying.

I Get So Hungry by Bebe Moore Campbell (2008), G. P. Putnam's Sons

When students tease others about being overweight, we speak up and let the person know this is not right. We take care of our bodies by eating nutritious foods and exercising.

I say "stop it" when I see others making fun of a person's size. I eat healthy foods and exercise to take care of my body.

The Juice Box Bully by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy (2011), Ferne Press

As a class, we stick up for each other when bullying is observed.

I stick up for my classmates who are being bullied.

Leave Me Alone by Kes Gray (2011), Barron's Educational Series

We are stronger as a group. If one student is afraid to face a bully, a group of bystanders can band together to help protect the student.

I band together with classmates to protect a classmate who is bullied.

Say Something by Peggy Moss (2004), Tilbury House

We must never remain silent when witnessing bullying. We support those who are bullied.

I speak up and say something when I see a classmate being bullied. I talk to the person and show that I care.

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell (2001), G. P. Putnam's Sons

We believe in ourselves. We listen to the people who appreciate who we are.

I believe in myself. I listen to the voices that build me up.

Don't Laugh At Me by Steve Seskin & Allen Shamblin (2002), Tricycle Press

We all have characteristics that make us unique, and we should not be teased, left out, and ridiculed because of these traits.

I am unique. I appreciate my uniqueness, and I appreciate others' uniqueness. I do not laugh at others who are different than I am.

Additionally, I want to assist teachers in protecting students with special needs by strengthening student bystanders to help these vulnerable children. Students with special needs are an especially vulnerable group who tend to be targeted by bullies for a variety of reasons (Rose, Monda-Amaya, & Espelage, 2011). Table 3 lists five bully-themed books that include students with special needs.

Table 3: Bully-Themed Books about Children with Special Needs

Core MessageAction Statement

Be Good to Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming (1993), Philomel Books

We can be friends with others who may look and act differently.

Everyone has something to teach us.

I include others who might look or act differently than I do.

My Sister, Alicia Mae by Nancy Tupper Ling (2009), Pleasant St. Press

Sometimes others may not be kind to someone who is different, smaller, or weaker. We step in and speak up for them.

I speak up for others who might not be able to stick up for themselves.

Keeping up With Roo by Sharlee Glenn (2004), G. P. Putnam's Sons

Being left out makes a person feel sad. We are thoughtful of others' feelings and find ways to include them in the fun.

I include others and help them feel a part of our class.

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco (1998), Philomel Books

We help others feel good about themselves by what we say and what we do.

I treat others with kindness and respect, even if they are different than I am.

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima (1955-reprinted), Puffin Books

Someone who looks different may be left out and bullied. We include and treat each person with respect.

I treat others with respect and help them feel a part of our class.

Conclusion

I selected the particular books listed in Tables 2 and 3 because each book models desirable behavior for student bystanders and encourages bystanders to take a stand against bullying, to step in and protect victims, and to speak up (Heath et al., 2013). Also I selected these books from many I have reviewed because young children enjoyed these books, the books were recommended by other readers, and the books modeled positive aspects that were in line with most school rules and desired attributes.

Typically teachers are able to fit a story and activity into a 20- to 30-minute time frame. These stories and lesson plans could be adapted to dovetail with grade level curriculum tied to common core reading standards for literature. In the Appendix to this article I share a list of resources to help with preparing lesson plans and activities associated with the stories.

When reviewing and aligning bibliotherapy activities with Utah's common core, use the reading standards for literature K-5 chart on pages 13–17 from the following Internet link: [http://schools.utah.gov/CURR/langartelem/Core-Standards/ELAColorStandards.aspx]. Writing activities associated with bibliotherapy could fulfill common core requirements as well (see pages 22–24 of the same document).

Teachers who utilize bibliotherapy to strengthen student bystander support are teaching students important life skills that will benefit the individual, the classroom, the school, and the community. When biblioherapy is streamlined to fit with daily learning activities in school, students will benefit from academic, social, and emotional learning (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Appendix: Addressing Bullying with Books: Recommended Resources for Teachers

Moulton, E. (2008). Confronting Bullying: Searching for Strategies in Children's Literature (Education specialist thesis), Brigham Young University. http://edts523naz.wikispaces.com/file/view/etd2991.pdf

This thesis analyzed 29 children's bully-themed picture books published between 2004 and 2009. Tables in Appendix C (pages 96–105) describe each of the identified books in regard to bullies and victims, type of bullying, reaction of bystanders, and resolution of bullying situation. Tables also describe awarded honors and The Horn Book ratings and review of the book's quality and content.

Heath, M. A., Dyches, T. T., & Prater, M. A. (2013). Classroom bullying prevention (Pre-K–4th grade): Children's books, lesson plans, and activities. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1610690973, 131 pages.

Intended for teachers, this book reviews 20 bully-themed picture books and provides a classroom lesson plan for each book, accompanied by activities and handouts. Lessons are focused on strengthening bystander support. Five of the lesson plans are specific to children with special needs, who are especially vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

Best Children's Books: http://www.best-childrens-books.com/childrens-books-about-bullying.html

The website Best Children's Books includes a list of bully-themed children's books, identifying the number of respected "book lists" on which the book appears. This number gives a rough estimate of the book's quality and popularity.

Internet links with free resources associated with Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns About Bullies (Students especially like the rap song.) 

Internet links featuring the song "Don't Laugh at Me"

Black, S. T. (2008). Classroom guidance games. Chapin, SC: YouthLight. ISBN 1598500023, 261 pages.

This book contains 50 activities/games for pre-k to 6th grade classrooms. The well organized activities require minimal preparation and include easy-to-understand directions, reproducible cards, and worksheets. The games, which take less than 30 minutes, teach a variety of important social skills, including bully prevention; friendship; study skills; anger management; emotions; politeness, manners, and respect; cooperation; career exploration; and self-esteem. The book also includes sample letters to help keep parents informed about classroom guidance topics and activities.

Melissa A. Heath, PhD, a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist, is an associate professor at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. Her research interests include children's grief, school-based crisis intervention, bibliotherapy, and addressing children's social-emotional needs in school settings.

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