Tag Archives: tweens

Bully For Me. Bully For You.

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To commemorate October as “Bullying Awareness Month,” I bring you the following insights regarding the subject…

As a latch-key kid, I basically came home from school, made my meals, and did my homework until my adult “roommates” came home. (To amuse myself I’d drive across the local park, set fire to things, and make Super-8 movies, usually of me driving across the local park and setting fire to things.) So when I was bullied at school, I not only didn’t have any sense of conflict management or support tools of any kind, but I couldn’t even really talk about it. At the time, the notion of “talking about it” just seemed like it would make it all the more real. So I kept it all bottled up inside and quietly hated myself for being bullied upon. The bullying wasn’t extreme, really, in retrospect: hardly ever physical, mostly just name-calling, the threat of abuse, a few books knocked out of my hands, etc. I was never punched, never shoved, but I still felt like a victim. The bullying created a thick layer of malevolence and unease to my school day, which—in retrospect—affected my school-work, my relationships, and my self-esteem even today. I often feel like I put up with more shit than I need to, like the guy at the end of an incontinent elephant parade armed only with a shovel.

The bullying turned this outsider inside out. When people talk about how happy they were in school, I simply can’t relate. I had great friends and, equipped with a selective memory, I can create a fairly convincing scrapbook of happy times in my head. But, really, I only started to feel comfortable with myself in my 30s! Maybe that’s why my books are obsessed with the infantile. A part of me is still frozen in a state of arrested development. In the vicious, viscous amber of time. Despite being a boy named Dale, I was pretty popular in elementary school, doing plays and talent shows, etc. But, upon middle school, all my friends were sent to one school, while I was sent to another. I never really recovered from that. I was sent to, basically, an off-Broadway production of Lord of the Flies and learned to keep my head down (my, what interesting feet I have!).

I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.

The baddest bully in my books, Damian Ruffino— is actually named after a real bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!

And, I have to say, adults weren’t much help at the time. At least not for me. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!

So that’s pretty much the fuel that feeds my Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go series. It was basically my middle school experience…a living Heck, though none of my teachers had hooves and horns, at least to the best of my knowledge. So, as irony has it, my book series often sends me back to school to do readings and workshops. My bowels still turn to jelly when walking down those shiny, institutionalized floors, hearing the exploding heart-attack bell, and swimming upstream through halls of impulse-control-challenged pre-teens. Maybe it’s a form of therapy. But it still feels like, inside, there is that nervous little kid with the headgear, wearing bellbottom cords and a Star Wars T-shirt, just trying to get through his day with as little fuss as possible. And I’m sure it is exponentially worse for kids today.

Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.

But does get better, as they say.

Just remember: A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you. It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…

The Circles of Heck vs. Circles of Hell: A Primer in Pre-Teen Perdition

One of the top questions I am asked—second only to “How the hell did you get into my living room!?”—is “How is your AMAZING book series for middle-readers—Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go—inspired by Dante’s epic poem, Inferno?”

Well let’s go back a bit…In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over…okay, maybe that’s too far back. I’ll skip a bit.

It was, like, 2005 or something. A filmmaker friend of mine wanted to collaborate on an animated short about the devil—sort of a VH1’s Behind the Brimstone sort of thing—so I got to thinking, which is what I tend to do when I want to avoid actual work.

One of the nuggets I came up with was a Hell for children (thank you, Pat Benatar) that—of course—just had to be called Heck. It was loosely based on the structure of Dante’s Inferno, and the story just sort of grew organically from there. Since the subject material was so potentially bleak (even eternal darnation can still be something of a bummer), I wanted it to strike the proper tone between funny, silly, exciting, and meaningful.

So let us analyze the differences between Dante’s Hell and Dale’s (my) Heck:

• Inferno (Italian for “Hell”) is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It chronicles the journey of Dante through the medieval concept of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering.

• Heck (not quite “Hell) is a series of books for pre-teens, teens, and anyone who likes the dark and goofy. It chronicles the journey of Milton and Marlo Fauster through an underworld middle school. There is a character named Virgil. In Heck, there are nine circles of supreme irritation based on childish “sins.”

And, since we live in a distracted age and need simple things to hold our attention…what is that spot on my wall? Is it a spider? Oh…it’s just a squooshed spider. So I guess it was a spider but now…anyway, I made the following chart to illustrate the key differences between Dante’s Inferno and Heck:

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Now let’s dig deeper: in fact, all the way to the underworld! All aboard…

 LEVEL ONE

 Limbo: The First Circle of Hell

You are in Limbo, a place of sorrow without torment. Here, there are the virtuous pagans, the great philosophers and authors, un-baptized children, and others unfit to enter the kingdom of heaven. The atmosphere is peaceful, yet sad.

 

VS.

 

Limbo: The First Circle of Heck

Welcome to the most boring, dull, drab, awful, endless, monotonous place where you ever twiddled your thumbs and stared off into space. Limbo is like having a Time Out…forever. Everything moves soooooooo tortuously slow. But hey: at least the broken clocks are right twice a day. Now go wait in the corner and think about what you’ve done—for all eternity.

 

LEVEL TWO

 

Lust: The Second Circle of Hell

Here, sinners are blown around endlessly by the unforgiving winds of unquenchable desire as punishment for their transgressions. The infernal hurricane that never rests hurtles the spirits onward. You have betrayed reason at the behest of your appetite for pleasure, and so here you are doomed to remain.

 

VS.

 

Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck

Gimme gimme gimme! Didn’t anybody ever tell you that greed would get you nowhere? Well…nowhere good at least. Welcome to Rapacia: Where you could never get enough, and what you did get is now completely worthless. Remember how you swore you’d die if you didn’t get it all? Well, be prepared to hand over all the pretty, shiny, glittery things you had to possess and obsess over. It’s the price you have to pay. Greed it and weep!

 

LEVEL THREE

 

Gluttony: The Third Circle of Hell

The gluttons are punished here, lying in the filthy mixture of shadows and of putrid water. Because you consumed in excess, you meet your fate beneath the cold, dirty rain, amidst the other souls that there lay unhappily in the stinking mud.

 

VS.

 

Blimpo: The Third Circle of Heck

You are what you eat…so you must be one sugary, salty mess of fudge, milkshakes, and curly chili fries with cheese! Welcome to Blimpo: Where your best friend is food and your gross lack of willpower is your worst enemy. You are all urge, and no purge. Never feel full? Get used to it—because this is one mess you can’t eat your way out of.

 

LEVEL FOUR

 

Greed: The Fourth Circle of Hell

Here, the prodigal and the avaricious suffer their punishment, as they roll weights back and forth against one another. You will share eternal damnation with others who either wasted and lived greedily and insatiably, or who stockpiled their fortunes, hoarding everything and sharing nothing.

 

VS.

 

Fibble: The Fourth Circle of Heck

White lies, whopping lies and everything in between makes you a liar, liar, pants on fire! You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! Welcome to Fibble: Where believing your lies makes you the best liar of all. So go ahead: lie through your smiling teeth. Lie in wait. But, above all, lie low. You’ll be here awhile. Honest.

 

LEVEL FIVE

 

Anger: The Fifth Circle of Hell

Here are the wrathful and the gloomy. The former are forever lashing out at each other in anger, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth. The latter are gurgling in the black mud, slothful and sullen. Their lamentations bubble to the surface as they try to repeat a doleful hymn.

 

VS.

 

Snivel: The Fifth Circle of Heck

Boo hoo. Who? You. Forever! Welcome to Snivel, where spilled milk is just one of the many things you’ll be crying about. It’s a place where the whining flows freely,  and no one cares about your moaning because they’re too busy groaning themselves. Now you’re really down in the dumps: way, way down!

 

LEVEL SIX

 

Heresy: The Sixth Circle of Hell

Burning tombs are littered about the landscape. Inside these flaming sepulchers suffer the heretics, failing to believe in God and the afterlife, who make themselves audible by doleful sighs. You will join the wicked that lie here, and will be offered no respite.

 

VS.

 

Precocia: The Sixth Circle of Heck

Your attempt to grow up too fast only made you go down, down, down way before your time. Welcome to Precocia, where the bad kids who don’t think they’re kids go. Every day is Freaky Friday where your salad days are served with a sneeze guard, meaning, no more kidding around. Ever.

 

LEVEL SEVEN

 

Violence: The Seventh Circle of Hell

The violent, the assassins, the tyrants, and the war-mongers lament in the river, while centaurs armed with bows and arrows shoot those who try to escape their punishment. The stench here is overpowering.

 

VS.

 

Wise Acres: The Seventh Circle of Heck

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but down here, words hurt far, far more. Welcome to Wise Acres where those with sharp tongues can cut deep. It’s the place for kids who sass back with a vengeance. So, if this sounds like you, then get ready for the ultimate war of words, and pray that you never run out of ammunition.

 

LEVEL EIGHT

 

Fraud: The Eighth Circle of Hell

Those guilty of fraudulence and malice are whipped by horned demons while the hypocrites struggle to walk in lead-lined cloaks. The magicians, diviners, fortune tellers, and panderers are all here, as are the thieves.

 

VS.

 

Sadia: The Eighth Circle of Heck

The foulest of the foul. The most brutal of the brutal. Welcome to Sadia, a place where the end always justifies the mean. Here, you’ve got to be cruel to be a kid, because the golden rule is an iron-fist. Think you can roll with the punches? Well, here’s hoping you don’t bruise easily.

 

LEVEL NINE

 

Treachery: The Ninth Circle of Hell

This is the deepest level of hell, where the fallen angel Satan himself resides. His wings flap eternally, producing chilling cold winds. Sinners here are frozen deep in the ice, faces out, eyes and mouths frozen shut. Traitors against God, country, and family, lament their sins in this frigid pit of despair.

 

VS.

 

Dupli-City: The Ninth Circle of Heck

Friend or faux? Welcome to Dupli-City, where every kid puts their best face forward: both of them. Treachery, manipulation, and betrayal are always in fashion. It’s a place where you’ve always got to watch your back, becomes there’s always someone ready to stab you in it. And, after an eternity spent here, you may just find that your own worst frenemy is yourself.

 

 

So, the moral of all this is: ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT. In fact: read EVERYTHING! Be it the work of a long-dead Italian poet ruminating about a fantastical spiritual journey, or a middle-aged wise guy who likes his satire served with a side of groan-inducing puns. So read whatever you can get your hands on, even the bitter and dark because—without that—how would we truly appreciate sweetness and light?

 

Guest Blog and Amazon Gift Card Contest 2/13!

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Join book blog Bitten By Books on Thursday 2/13 with me (author Dale Basye) for a guest blog, chat and contest.This event post goes up at 12:00pm Central and runs into the evening. For those visiting from outside of the US, here is the time conversion link. Bitten By Books is in the Chicago time zone: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/

I will be talking about my newest book Wise Acres: The Seventh Circle of Heck.

“In the seventh installment of Heck, Dale E. Basye sends Milton and Marlo Fauster to Wise Acres, the circle reserved for kids who sass back. In Wise Acres, the cleverest, snarkiest, put-downiest kids debate and trade insults in Spite Club. But the new vice principal, Lewis Carroll, has some curious plans to raise the profile—and the stakes—of the competition. Now a full-fledged War of the Words will be broadcast through the afterlife. The winner will get the heck out of Heck and go straight to heaven. And the loser? Well, the loser goes down . . . all the way down to the real h-e-double-hockey-sticks. And Milton and Marlo are on opposite teams. Can they find a way out of Lewis Carroll’s mad-as-a-hatter scheme? Or is one Fauster about to pay a permanent visit to the Big Guy Downstairs?”

CONTEST INFO: Open to readers worldwide!
First Prize: $20.00 Amazon Gift Card
RSVP below and get 25 entries to the prize portion of the contest when you show up on the day of the event. If you don’t show up and mention your RSVP your points won’t be entered into the contest. Be SURE to TWEET and FACEBOOK this link: http://bittenbybooks.com/?p=72741 so your friends can RSVP too.

Interview with Jacobsen’s Books

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1) What was the first piece you ever wrote?

Focusing the telescope of attention inward, the haziest memory of early writing I can think of is a gripping, multi-layered piece of fiction entitled “Snoopy Travels Around the World.” It probably won’t come as much of a shock to you—the person on the other side of whatever this is—that this short slab of edgy prose was about Snoopy, and how he…well, traveled around the world. I was probably seven or eight when my pen (or crayon, more likely) produced this genre-defying work. It was basically a list of places loosely held together with the dramatic conceit of Snoopy being bored, venturing forth, then returning home, realizing that he was happiest here all along. I believe some of the places he visited were “France, Italy, Africa, the desert, Mexico…” amongst others. I love the depth of thought that went into “the desert”…I even cribbed the main character. I’m surprised the Schultz estate hasn’t hounded me. Puzzlingly, the story was printed in The San Francisco Chronicle. Really. I ended up working there years later, probably on the merits of this early, disturbing work.

2) Where do you get most of your ideas?

Mostly my brain…but then again, look what’s telling me that! My brain thinks it knows everything. It’s like it has a mind of its own sometimes. Anyway, I’m just this sort of living, breathing ransom note comprised of odd scraps of often conflicting things, hastily pasted together to form some kind of coherent incoherence. Sure, I read a lot—mostly nonfiction (here’s a parenthetical statement wedged inside of two dashes: I’m currently reading the first volume in an exhaustive and exhausting history of the Beatles. It’s fascinating, but I just found out that the second volume won’t be published in another six years, when I’ll be in my 50s…my sweet lord…)—I also wage a valiant yet doomed assault on The New Yorker, where I try to keep up, invariably fail, then cancel my subscription until I get another offer where they basically pay me to read it…throwing in a desk calendar or something. I used to be a movie critic, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the dark. I also absorb most every conversation I overhear in coffee shops. So all of this stuff coagulates in my brain pan—baking for a fortnight at about 350 degrees until golden brown—and then I chip it out of the pan and…great, now I’m hungry and I’ve completely lost my way. The point is, I get my ideas everywhere. I think my greatest strength, besides competitive thumb wrestling, is in putting ordinary things together in unexpected ways. I have to make something my own before I’m interested, which is why I’d be a terrible co-author!
3) Who was your favorite childhood author?

At first, the Peanuts anthologies, then the Hardy Boys, then Jules Verne, then the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, then Dune, then Catcher in the Rye, then Crime and Punishment, and then a book of matches.

Probably Roald Dahl, for his wicked sense of humor. Then I got into sci-fi WAY hard. Inhaled most everything that had space ships in it. As a teen, I’d carry around anything by Kurt Vonnegut, even before I fully understood his books, perhaps hoping to absorb them through osmosis.

4) Who do you act out the scenes in your novels with?

I’m not sure I fully understand this question, though that has never stopped me before. I don’t really “act out” my scenes (though I have been accused of acting out, especially by my mom). I grab pictures of what I think my characters look like and pin them to a corkboard so they feel more real. I also have to sketch out my various monsters and creatures so I can describe them properly. That way I’m just recounting what I’m seeing rather than writing. The closest I’ve come to acting out my scenes (apart from literally acting out my scenes at readings) was one time when I was driving, which I almost never do as a committed cyclist, and I had a conversation playing out in my head, where it very much felt like two separate people, and I later realized it was Milton and Marlo Fauster, the two protagonists of my Heck series! What they were saying didn’t seem like what I would say at all. They were speaking for themselves! I’m lucky my insurance doesn’t cover meds or I would be out of a job.

5) What is your favorite thing you’ve written?

I was sort of a “Johnny come lately” when it comes to writing (as is evident by my use of phrases such as “Johnny come lately.”). As a kid I was really into drawing: mainly spaceships and superheroes (such as The Volt and the ill-named Human Faucet). Later, I was really into music, which was my driving passion up until my early 30s. I used to write stories, though, to supplement my drawings: mainly based on existing properties such as Star Trek. You know: having Kirk and Spock do cool things like destroy entire planets that wore white after Labor Day, or do awesome mash-ups with the Enterprise battling the Fantastic Four. I would also view the burden of writing a book report into an opportunity to use whatever subject was imposed upon me as a launch pad to write what I really wanted to write about. Like when I had to write about the Declaration of Independence. I housed my essay within a post-apocalyptic story where a man finds the document in the rubble of a destroyed building (razed by alien lasers) and, though English had changed so much he could only make out part of it, he gets the gist just as humanity is enslaved by our new alien overlords. It got an A, though that could have been because I used glitter on the cover. I became more serious about writing when I worked at The San Francisco Chronicle. Though I was mostly a messenger, I would review night clubs and books so that I could go to night clubs for free and get books before they were released to the masses. I found that I really enjoyed being published! Oh, and the writing too. From there, I began reviewing movies and became a movie critic, then started my own newspaper in Portland (Tonic), then was an Arts Editor at Willamette Week before being sucked into the Netherworld of advertising. When I look back at my reviews, they remind me a lot of the writing that I did as a kid, where I’d approach a subject as a springboard to talk about something else that sort of relates but doesn’t really. Like when I reviewed Alien 3 and it turned out to be mostly about my difficult relationship with my mother. I think it was the whole “hatching eggs, bleeding acid, and things eating their way out of stomachs” thing.

Oh…I almost forgot the question. I think one of the things I’ve written I’ve enjoyed the most was in my newspaper tonic. One was a fake news story of a bunch of dim-witted old protesters protesting the Arboretum, waving signs declaring that Arboretum Is Murder, and another where I did a fake profile on a guy that “tasted” local streets and reviewed them as if he were a wine connoisseur. Anyway, they seemed funny at the time. I’m probably the most proud of my books because, wow, it’s hard to sit for a year and write a book and not have a total breakdown.

6) What scene in your writing has made you laugh the hardest or cry the most?

My fourth Heck book, Fibble: Where the Lying Kids Go, takes place in an underworld advertising agency. So I had a lot of fun using my advertising experience for good use, coming up with ridiculous campaigns for products such as “Gee, Your Farts Smell Terrific!” (scented underwear) and flavored soap with a yummy “surprise” in the middle. That stuff cracked me up. In terms of crying, there is a note that Milton’s mother leaves him at the end of the second Heck book, Rapacia, where she is telling him he is not to blame for his sister’s death that gets me every time.

7) What do you think makes good writing?

A strong voice, declaring something that hasn’t been declared before, at least not in that particular way. I like experiencing a story through fresh perspectives. The story itself may not even be conventionally “good,” but I enjoy a ride in a new car, going someplace I’ve never been before. For instance, I love Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, not so much for the story, which I barely remember, but telling that story in second person was so exciting to me as a reader! I love that he took that chance!

8) What made you fall in love with writing?

I loved creating worlds to inhabit, as an escape. I think any outcast retreats into their imagination, and that is just one of the many ways that I am not unique. For a time I did it with music, then movies, but then I realized I could have the most control by writing: controlling every aspect of the world I was creating. It probably seriously started for me when I worked the graveyard shift at the San Francisco Chronicle. I would be SO bored that I wrote little stories for my friends on the day shift. Nothing like being alone in a huge building tending countless machines at 3 AM to get your creative juices flowing. They started as funny little anecdotes then expanded into surreal tomes involving all of the people I worked with.

9) How do you beat out your writers block?

Of the many problems I have, that is not one of them. In fact, I suffer from having too many ideas, so my books are like high pressure canisters. One day I will relax and not have that anxiety that comes with thinking that every idea you have should be captured. Some, well…don’t. I do, occasionally, feel like my mojo has left the building…that what I’m writing isn’t crackling with creative energy. So I’ll ride my bike. That tends to dislodge the sludge from my brain. Wrestling alligators also helps keep me in the moment.

10) Who is your favorite writer?

The guy that writes the Emergency Exit signs on planes. Those are very useful. There are so many writers that I am DEADLY jealous of…but, in terms of writing that has always affected me on multiple levels, I’d say Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, every book of his has some wonderful nugget. Like Mother Night (We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.) and Slaughterhouse Five (How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.). Brilliant. I miss St. Kurt.

<3 Conference

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Last month I had the great pleasure of being invited to St. Louis to take part in (Auntie) Heather Brewer’s (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series) Less Than Three (<3) Anti-Bullying Conference. It was one of those experiences so profound that I found it impossible to blog about. In the words of the conference’s eloquent spokesperson: “Less Than Three will not just focus on bullying and why it’s a problem, but will work to offer solutions for the teens who are experiencing this torment. We plan to reach out to all facets of bullied teens: GLBT, multicultural, outcasts, everyone. Because bullying affects everyone.”

I was amongst such authorial luminaries as Susane Colasanti, David Levithan, Andrew Smith, Lisa McMann, Carrie Ryan, A.S. King (oh…I get it: asking), Rachel Caine, Jennifer Brown, Alethea Kontis, Jody Feldman, Cheryl Rainfield, T.M. Goeglein, Ellen Hopkins,Cole Gibsen, Carrie Jones, Mari Mancusi, Shannon Messenger, Sarah Bromley and Antony John.

The Less Than Three conference brought teens, tweens, booksellers, teachers, administrators, parents, librarians, and authors together to rally against bullying. It featured panels focusing on the various effects of bullying and positive approaches to tackling the issue. But, more than anything, it got a refreshing dialogue going about bullying and how it affects everyone. In fact, I feel I got far more out of the experience (especially from the affecting appearance of teen Jordan Brooks who, in a way, inspired the whole event) than the attendees! 

I appeared on the BULLYING IN SCHOOL: When a safe haven turns into a waking nightmare panel. So, rather than try to wrestle this emotional experience in to words, I’ll simply paraphrase some of the questions posed, and my answers.

“QUESTION #1

I know that everyone on the panel has been bullied, so to start off, I’d like you to talk about that. If you were to write one representative scene in a book that would illustrate your personal experiences with being bullied in school, how would that go?

Well, there is a bully—actually THE bully in my book, Damian Ruffino—who is actually named after a really bully I encountered in middle school. I forget what his first name was, but his last name was definitely Ruffino. He was one of those kids that was twice as big as the other kids, probably had facial hair as a baby…I remember he had the name RUFFINO on the back of the football jersey he’d always wear. He was just one of many. He never really did anything but make fun of me or threaten me. Anyway, in the first chapter of the first Heck book, Milton—the main character—has these horrible memories of his encounters with Damian flash into his mind just before his—SPOILER—death! While these scenes weren’t anything that happened to me, per se, they captured the feeling I would have of basically being “hunted” at school. Avoiding someone as if they carried the bully-bonic plague!

Feel free to include any instances when you were the bully. Or where bullying came from an unexpected source. And if you’d like, also touch on your thoughts about this, about where words and actions cross the line from meanness/rudeness/inappropriateness to bullying.

A bully is really only beating him or herself up……only you’re the one doubled over in agony, scrambling for your broken glasses and your shattered dignity. No joke (In fact, you should never joke with a bully, as they always finish up with a strong punch-line). Bullies are always on the prowl for a quick and dirty fight. It’s best to leave them to simmer solo in their own beastly juices. Trying to win is the surest way to lose. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you.  It’s with themselves. You’d just get in the way…

QUESTION #2

One of the great perks of being an author, at least I think so, is the contact with our readers, including going into schools to speak. Have any of you ever been approached by students who conveyed their own bully-related experiences or maybe asked your help? Or have you received letters that speak to that? How did you respond? How do you help a person when you’ll only have such limited contact?

I hated middle school. Hated it. So I find it supremely ironic that, after writing a bunch of books for middle-readers, I find myself having to go to schools for appearances. It’s like if I wrote a book about terrible prison experiences, then had to do a tour of maximum security penitentiaries. Yay. Maybe my next series should be about tropical spa vacations. Anyway, I don’t have a wide audience. My books are kind of cult-y. Niche. But the fan-base are really devoted. Half of the letters or messages I get are from adults, which is interesting. Also a lot of “spooky” teen girls, which I didn’t bargain for. I thought Heck would appeal mostly the pre-teen boys, but girls have really latched on to Marlo. Anyway, while I haven’t gotten any letters specifically about bullying, I can tell that my books are savored by outcasts: those that feel different. And that my stories, humor, outlook and way of writing appeal to them. They really enjoy the obscure references that make them feel part of an exclusive club. And I know that, when I was growing up, sci-fi and punk music really helped me through. It was very different then: media wasn’t so omnipresent. You had to actively seek out the things that you liked and, with the effort and intention that required, it made you feel like part of a club. Just knowing that there were other freaks out there that liked what I liked made school much more bearable.

QUESTION #3

There is a common opinion that many kids who get bullied bring it on themselves. They come to class dressed weirdly or raise their hands and ask strange questions or otherwise present themselves like wounded animals exposing their vulnerabilities. Or that when they react and show emotion to some sort of jab or insult, they make themselves a target. Even those who hang around on the fringes of the popular kids are setting themselves up for disaster. How does bullying begin, in your opinion? Why are some kids targeted over others? Do you see a stereotypical set of victim characteristics? Are some kids just asking for it? And is that common opinion at all true?

I have actually never ever heard that or even considered that. I think it is a sort of gross stereotype, rather like blaming women who dress provocatively of their own sexual assault. Sure, in retrospect, maybe my bright yellow C-3PO T-shirt or tie-dyed Navy jacket adorned with pins and badges or pajama tops and leather jackets weren’t exactly the right thing to wear to school to avoid getting picked on, but it was who I was. For the most part, I didn’t think how I brought bullying on…although, wait, scratch that. I remember one time some kid making fun of my eyelashes. They were really long, like Bambi-long. So I went home and cut them. They mostly grew back, but my mom never really forgave me. To this day, she’ll bring up how long my lashes used to be before I cut them. I was also incredibly pale as a kid, mainly because everything interesting to me involved being inside. So there was a summer where I just laid out in the sun—no sun protection—and baked until golden brown. While it prevented me from being called “albino,” now in my late-forties I have to contend with the sun damage!

QUESTION #4

So there you are being brutally bullied in school. The adults who should call a halt to it or at least acknowledge it with some sympathy either turn the other cheek or adopt a “kids will be kids” attitude. If pressed they might argue that it’s the way society has always been and always will be; that it’s part of the normal process of maturing; that you learn more when you deal with your problems yourselves; that the kids will work it out. Besides, if they were to step in and stand up for that student, it could, they’ve been known to say:

A). Add more fuel to the fire, with the aggressor seeing that kid as a poor, little teacher’s pet.

B). Be even more disruptive to the classroom-learning environment.

C). Have the teacher open him/herself to attack from the bully or from the bully’s parents.

Is there any validity to any of those arguments for school personnel to stay out of it? What do you see as the roles of teachers and administrators when it comes to bullying? How can school faculty overcome their own concerns about intervening? Is there a way that those who are being bullied can persuade a skeptical faculty member to step in?

In the moment, sometimes it might make a victim uncomfortable to have a teacher intervene (though there is immediate relief), but I think we have to look at the bigger picture. If teachers become involved, that is sending a message that the school—and therefore society—do not condone bullying. That it is unacceptable. Nothing is worse than being victimized and knowing that adults know what is going on but choose to do nothing. That makes you feel like you deserve the abuse, somehow. While it is true that it is really up to the bully and the bullied to alter the dynamic—outside interference does little to really attack the root of the problem—I think it is vital that everyone involved know that it is not okay to bully. I remember in middle school we had a PE coach for a while, his name was—get this—Tiny. And, of course, he wasn’t. One of those nicknames that bullies adopt to basically dare you to say something, I’m sure. Anyway, my friend Guy Himber and I were trying our best to play football despite our utter non-interest and complete lack of skill, and the boys who basically lived to play football as an excuse to hit each other would always plow into us with undisguised glee. So, I had headgear—of course—and after one particularly vicious play, Guy and I were pretty banged up and were either crying or were on the verge of crying, and I recall vividly Tiny, surrounded by a pack of snickering boys, just laughing at us. An adult not only thinking that it was fine for some boys to physically abuse others, but openly condoning, even celebrating it. That really pissed me off. I mean, what an awful, awful person. I’m sure there is an open position in Heck just waiting for Coach Tiny!

QUESTION #5

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem – extrapolated from an Eldridge Cleaver quote.  I know I’ve been guilty of being part of the problem. In first grade, for example, someone started calling a kid in our class, Clod. Gary was a nice enough kid, but he was already taller than everyone except the teacher. And his awkwardness seemed to be born from his early size. It got to be a nickname so much so that he even wrote it on his school papers.  And yet, even at six, I knew it wasn’t right. Still, what could I do about it? And that’s a long way to ask you to speak to this. Talk about the very common practice of otherwise good, kind kids who get swept up in the gang mentality. Why do you see that happening? How can a 6- or 10- or 16-year-old intervene without making themselves the victim? Or how can they simply not feed into it?

That’s a really interesting question. Yes, there was one kid in particular—Greg McCaffey—that I feel really bad about. It’s an interesting phenomenon, when you have been bullied and then there comes a situation where you find yourself joining in the pack against another kid. I’m sure it was really about fear: fear that if you didn’t join in, they would attack you. Or just the misguided feeling that, by bullying someone else you yourself wouldn’t be bullied. Greg was, I believe, the principal’s son. And he rather resembled Stephen Hawking, only without need of a wheelchair. Everyone would just call him freak. He was way skinny, had a slight speech impediment…man, I feel awful. I never called him names myself, but I was guilty of snickering when others did. It was so strange how he became someone that even the bullied would pick on. Yuck.

Anger is like the zombie apocalypse. When you are squaring off against the undead you’re facing a no-win situation. You can’t kill them. And with one savage, infecting bite, suddenly you’re biting for the other team. Anger is also—like laughter and whooping cough—highly contagious. It spreads mercilessly from person to person, feeding off human frailty like a toddler to a juice box, until there’s no right or wrong, my way or the highway, only raging rage and full-on fury. Fighting fire with fire is only a win for fire…

QUESTION #6

I read an article last May about a mom who, upon hearing her daughter had been relentlessly teasing kids at school about their ugly clothes, removed her daughter’s clothes and left her only with two unstylish thrift store outfits. The girl was forced to wear those ugly clothes to school and feel the ridicule. The reaction to this story was divided into two camps:

1). The mother was (successful in) teaching her daughter empathy;

2). The mother was (successful in) displaying/modeling bullying actions herself.

Where do you fall on this? And how can we encourage and teach empathy and/or how it feels to be on the other end of the cruelty?

Even though I feel a little embarrassed to say this, my first reaction is: yeah…way to go, weird mother! I don’t if this type of public shaming is always the right thing to do—or even if it is at ANY time—but, as a parent, I know how hard to is to accept when your kid has done something awful to another kid, and to force them to make it right. Perhaps that’s the key. Ideally, it would be best if you didn’t have to force them but, instead, convinced them what they were doing was wrong and brainstorm ways of rectifying the situation. That would be ideal. But I think one thing we are losing in our modern society is the concept of empathy. As a writer, I really think that one of the main strengths of reading, especially novels, is that they put you into the perspective of another person. And that ability, to see life through someone else’s eyes, is crucial to becoming a fully-realized human being. That’s why I get so worried when I read about kids not picking up novels like they used to. And, I don’t know if anyone has seen that Conan O’Brien show with Louis CK where he talks about cellphones, but there was one bit where he was talking about how technology makes it so much easier to be a bully because you don’t have to see the reaction: how awful someone feels when they are being bullied. You can just send something awful into the ether and not have to deal with it. Like being in a bomber and dropping bombs on some city, where you don’t have to see all the people you’ve killed. So I worry about the death of empathy. Anyway, I don’t know if forcing empathy upon a bully works—I can imagine it fueling a lot of animosity—but I would think that at least in some cases, a bully might actually “get it.” And I’m all for engaged parents who want to help their kids be better citizens, short of beating them which would only perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

QUESTION #7

If you could have a conversation with or write a letter to your younger self, what would you tell that kid? What advice would you give to deal with school bullies? Or with faculty who stood around and did nothing? What can you say to take your younger self from that feeling of powerlessness to empowerment? And what about the timetable? What sort of realistic progress should you expect to see? How and when can you hope to wake up without the sense of heaviness and clouds and impending doom every school morning? What would you tell your younger self about the future?

Being an adolescent is hard. Harder now than ever, actually. Especially with all of the adult tools nowadays that only kids have the disposable time to completely utilize for evil. The key to it all is perspective. Now, in retrospect, I know that that time was fleeting. Transitory. But a blip. Sure, it was awful at times, but now I know that it was just a patch of bad road. At the time, though, it seemed impossibly deep and impassably terrible. And it’s really hard to convince someone with no perspective to have perspective.

A bully is basically no different than their victim, only he or she tends to keep their bruises on the inside. That anger makes you feel like you just at a hive of molten-hot bees. And that’s why most bullies, quite understandably, try their best to uncork that bottled rage and pour it all over anyone and everyone at hand.”

Anyway, Auntie Heather’s Less Than Three Conference was a life changer. And, while I would love to attend again, here’s hoping there’s no need for an anti-bullying conference in the future! Oh…and here are some blogs that covered the wonderful Less Than Three conference far better than I…be sure to check them out!

http://www.yainterrobang.com/2013/10/27/less-than-three-conference-rallies-against-bullying/

http://middlegrademinded.blogspot.com/2013/10/less-than-three-anti-bullying-conference.html

http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2013/10/less-then-three-conference-by-matthew.html

http://antibullyproject.com/2013/10/26/jordans-story-abp2013-lessthanthree-jordanbrooks/

 

Trick AND Treat!

HNI_0007Vermont may be for lovers, but Halloween is for Hecklers! To prove it, I will give a signed book (maybe even a Circles of Heck book) to the first THREE Hecklers that send me pictures or video of them dressed as a character from my Heck series (new photos, please…I know a few of you have dressed like Milton or Marlo in the past!). Please send all photographic (or videographic) evidence to: heck@wherethebadkidsgo.com! Ready…set…GO CRAZY!

Heck Contest Winner: Timothy Spaw!

halloween-music

Remember that contest I posted a while back, asking Hecklers™ to post a video of them reading a chapter from one of my Circles of Heck books? Well…that didn’t work out so well. I got a few close calls (like Lucy Guzzardo’s awesome Heck video game!) but not a lot of actual Heck-related readings. I did, however, get a batch of CREEPTASTIC SONGS from Heckler™ Timothy Spaw from Syracuse, New Jersey! I’ve included them for all to enjoy this spooktacular season! Timothy is ten years old and loves music (apparently really disturbing music) and I thought, in honor of Halloween (AKA Satan’s Birthday), I would award him with the EXTRA SPECIAL PRIZE of a FULL-SET of SIGNED (or “Singed” if you’re dyslexic) HECK BOOKS! CONGRATULATIONS TIMOTHY AND SORRY I’M WRITING THIS IN ALL-CAPS! I’M NOT REALLY YELLING, IT’S JUST THAT I SPILLED FRESCA ON THE KEYBOARD!