Shuffling through the lunch line in the school cafeteria, a 13-year-old boy in Ferrum, Va., turned to find a place where he could sit by himself. Then another kid slugged him in the stomach. The boy fell to the ground, but no one offered to help. Instead, the other students, watching, just laughed.
Cruel? Yes. Uncommon? Unfortunately, no. This middle schooler is one of about 3.2 million sixth- through 10th-graders reported to be victims of bullying each year.
As parents and educators try to deal with what seems like an epidemic of abusive behavior among schoolchildren, they often find themselves searching for effective tools. One of the simplest - and most overlooked - may already be sitting on the shelves of the nation's libraries.
Bibliotherapy may sound like psychobabble to some, but good literature presents a unique opportunity for children to experience the world from someone else's point of view, to explore another's emotions and actions, as well as to better understand their own.
"Books provide perspective and build empathy," says Nancy Mullin-Rindler, director of the Project on Teasing and Bullying at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
More than that, they handle a complex subject in ways that children (and adults) can easily understand and relate to.
Take, for example, "The Recess Queen," by schoolteacher-turned-author Alexis O'Neill. It is the story of Mean Jean, a fictional schoolyard bully extraordinaire. Nobody kicks a ball until Mean Jean kicks. Nobody swings a bat until Mean Jean swings. At least not until new kid Katie Sue comes along, and with a plucky invitation to skip rope, transforms this recess dictator into a kinder, gentler playmate.
One 6-year-old reader shared with Ms. O'Neill her own real-life experience with a recess queen. This little girl had followed Katie Sue's lead and invited the bully to play. And she was happy to report that her peacemaking efforts had been a success.
Unfortunately, there aren't many pigtailed Katie Sues who can stand toe-to-toe with a kid who has "hammered ... [and] slammered ... kitz and kajammered" everyone in sight and then, with nothing but a jump rope, lead her so effortlessly to such an epiphanic moment. In real life, experts tell us, happy endings are rarely so quick and easy.
That's why Professor Mullin-Rindler prefers the classics, such as Dr. Seuss's "The Sneetches and Other Stories," which never claim to be the final word on a subject. Instead, they provide an opportunity to discuss issues such as peer pressure and group manipulation.
This Seussian tale is routinely read to children as they conclude their visit to the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, where many children learn for the first time about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Other stories of exclusion and intimidation have been documented in literature for centuries. Though the setting and characters have varied, the human drama has remained relatively unchanged.
In fact, until recently many adults - and authors - have treated abuse among children as typical kids' play, minimizing children's concerns or even turning a deaf ear, unsure of how to handle the situation, according to Walter B. Roberts Jr., of Minnesota State University, Mankato.
"The conventional wisdom has been to ignore the problem and it will go away, but kids will tell you that it doesn't go away," says Professor Roberts, who leads anti-bullying workshops across the country. "We have not provided children with the type of assistance they need to deal with bullying."
But what is the best way to give children the tools they need?
Across the country, educators are embracing conflict-resolution programs and antibullying campaigns in an attempt to teach moral, empathetic values. In the wake of their efforts, a cottage industry has emerged, flooding the market with new curricula, workshops, and how-to books.
Although many of these resources convey helpful, well-documented information, others perpetuate an incomplete understanding of the issue, as well as promote misconceptions and stereotypes.
Just ask Susan P. Limber, associate director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University in South Carolina. She points to the prevailing idea that bullies often suffer from low self-esteem. This belief often shapes the approach that many school officials take to the problem of bullying.
But some recent reports suggest the contrary, she says, and efforts spent to enhance the bully's opinion of himself may have been overemphasized. Instead, the bully may need exposure to more positive social role models.
Victims, on the other hand, do tend to suffer from a low self-image and should rarely be brought face-to-face with their tormentors and expected to work out their problems among themselves.
"Bullying is not a conflict," says Ms. Limber. "It is a victimization, and we need to help educators recognize the difference."
That's why Wellesley's Mullin-Rindler promotes the use of children's books at home and in schools. Literature provides adults with a day-to-day opportunity to begin a dialogue with children about what bullying behavior is and how they, even at very young ages, can prevent it.
She, like many experts, believes attention needs to focus on the silent bystander. "We need to send the message that siding with the bully is not cool. That's the bigger issue, raising empathy with the group as a whole," says Mullin-Rindler.
One book that does that is "The Hundred Dresses," a 1944 tale by Eleanor Estes. The story is told from the point of view of the bully's best friend and speaks poignantly about the pain inflicted by someone's unvoiced complicity.
In the book, Wanda Petronski, the daughter of a poor Polish immigrant, is taunted daily about her clothing. Although the little girl wears the same old faded blue dress to school day after day, she claims she has 100 others lined up in her closet.
A girl named Maddie just stands by as her friend Peggy teases Wanda, until Wanda's father moves the family to the city, hoping for more acceptance.
Eventually Maddie realizes: "True, she had not enjoyed listening to Peggy ask Wanda how many dresses she had in her closet, but she had said nothing. She stood by silently, and that was just as bad as what Peggy had done. Worse. She was a coward.... She had done just as much as Peggy to make life miserable for Wanda by simply standing by and saying nothing. "
One reason books are effective is that parents and teachers can use them during conversations to help set expectations for how children should treat others. But there's something more.
Like many other researchers in the field, Limber agrees that literature and music include an emotional component that lectures and workbooks may not. Thus, they can enhance a good antibullying program.
In fact, the poetic, heartfelt lyrics of the country music song "Don't Laugh at Me" inspired the development of a school curriculum bearing the same name.
Peter Yarrow - of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame - was so moved after hearing the song performed at a music festival, that he spearheaded the antibullying project that he now considers his life's work.
The curriculum is offered free on the Internet; more than 50,000 copies have been distributed nationwide. The song, which is also available in book form, illustrates the pain of the isolated, bullied child and remains a core element of the program.
Former schoolteacher and award-winning principal Loucrecia Collins now serves as the project manager responsible for implementing the Don't Laugh at Me curriculum in Birmingham, Ala., area school districts. She speaks poignantly of a first-grader who was severely burned in a house fire that left his face scarred and disfigured. His classmates taunted him mercilessly, until he heard this song.
"Then he boldly stood up and told the other kids not to laugh at him or call him names. It changed the way he viewed himself," says Ms. Collins.
Convinced that literature is one of the most effective ways of teaching tolerance, she has now applied for funding that will enable collections of appropriate books to be placed in several Birmingham elementary schools.
"A book promotes conflict resolution in the everyday life of children. And it's those everyday epiphanies that bring about change in how children build their social relationships."
The Meanest Thing to Say
By Bill Cosby (Scholastic, $3.99)
How words can be used to tease and bully, and how conflict may be resolved without retaliating or losing face.
By Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books, $15.95)
Classmates tease a mouse named Chrysanthemum because of her name. Great opportunity to talk about how it feels to be teased.
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom
By Louis Sachar (Knopf, $4.99)
A fifth-grade bully, with the help of a school counselor, learns to believe in himself and changes his ways. Told from the bully's perspective, it points out the need to respect one another.
By E.B. White (Dell, $6.99)
This classic illustrates the isolating results of bullying behavior and the importance of strength and perseverance. It points out the vital role a friend or mentor can play in someone's life.
Telling Isn't Tattling
By Kathryn Hammerseng (Parenting Press, $5.95)
This book explains the difference between telling and tattling and also provides opportunities to discuss problem-solving techniques.