“My Top Ten YA Novels About Bullying” by Mathangi Subramanian
Growing up the bespectacled, bookish, brown-skinned daughter of Indian immigrants, I underwent my share of bullying. But while I was writing Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide, memories of witnessing—rather than experiencing—bullying loomed large. Most often, I was reminded of my brief tenure as a public school teacher, when I watched young people I cared about both act like and suffer from bullies.
As a child, my bullies felt like one-dimensional paper-cut outs of people that stopped existing after they terrorized me. As a teacher, the bullies in my classrooms were more than their misguided actions. They were sons and daughters of parents I admired, musicians and artists and athletes that excelled outside of my classroom, and sheepish people-in-progress who asked me if maybe, even though I was a science teacher, I could help them with their love problems.
And, when my colleagues made comments about me being foreign (even though I am American), godless (even though I am Hindu) and young (okay, that was true), these teens were my defenders, telling me that they didn’t care what other people said, they liked me just fine. How, I wondered, could these compassionate, brilliant young people be the same ones who to hurt their peers?
The more I learn about bullying, the more I believe that it is the result of a failure of empathy. I don’t just mean from teens: I also mean from adults who tell victims to buck up and deal with it; from administrators who punish bullies without investigating what trauma may be driving them to violence; and from students and adults who witness bullying and egg it on.
In fact, the most effective anti-bullying policies—like restorative justice, mental health and social services, and social justice based curriculum—are those that are based on building empathy. It’s a shame that they are still not commonly used.
It’s true, most teachers can’t redo district policy or institute training programs. But here’s one thing they can do: assign some compelling fiction. After all, aren’t stories the best ways to walk in each other’s shoes? Below is a list of ten of my favorite YA books with protagonists that face bullying. These books break silences, feature diverse main characters, and are impossible to put down. Most importantly, they helped me empathize with characters whose lives and choices I ordinarily would find unforgiveable. From school shooters to mean girls to backstabbing friends, the characters in these books helped me realize that everyone has a backstory, and that what almost all of us want, more than anything, is a little forgiveness and a little understanding.
1. Hate List by Jennifer Brown – Valerie must piece her life together after her boyfriend, Nick, stages a school shooting and commits suicide. When she returns to finish her senior year, Valerie learns about forgiveness, redemption, community, and love.
2. Wonder by R.J. Palacio – A great book told from multiple perspectives about a boy with a visible genetic abnormality who decides to go to school for the first time.
3. Orchards by Holly Thompson – Told in verse through the voice of a biracial protagonist, this book is about Kana Goldberg’s journey to come to terms with her role in her friend’s suicide.
4. Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia – When Trina the diva gets in the way of the angry basketball player Dominique, Leticia knows what’s going to happen – but she decides not to get involved.
5. Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt – The bullying eighth grader Doug faces at school is nothing compared to the bullying he faces at home at the hands of his father. Brilliant historical fiction tackling the little-addressed issue of adult bullies.
6. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger – A story about a Sikh teenager coming of age after September 11th, this book tackles dating violence, hate crimes, and Islamophobia.
7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – This semi-autobiographical book is about a Native American boy who decides to leave the reservation he lives on to get an education at the White school, and the bullying he faces because of his decision.
8. Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal – Kiran, the main character in this book, is a gender non-conforming Indian American boy who is bullied at school and a puzzle to his parents.
9. I Am J by Cris Beam – The story of J, a transgendered boy trying to grapple with his identity and preserve his most important relationships.
10. Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Budhos – Jaya, Maria, and Lola are the daughters of nannies in a wealthy suburb. When Jaya’s mother’s employer accuses her of stealing, the three friends must fight adult and teen bullies. This book provides a sensitive and nuanced view of classism and xenophobia.
Mathangi Subramanian, EdD, is a writer and educator. She has been a classroom teacher, an assistant vice president at Sesame Workshop, and a senior policy analyst at the New York City Council.
Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide draws on stories from young teens around the country, this volume uncovers the social pressures and individual choices that lead to violence. The author surveys effective state, local, and national anti-bullying policies and provides examples of teens throughout the nation whose leadership and courage have helped stop violence. This volume also contains exercises and strategies for young adults to employ that can pave the way for social action. Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide is a much-needed resource to help stem the tide of this social epidemic. Featuring a diverse collection of teen voices, this book is designed to help teens take immediate action both individually and collectively. The advice and exercises will not only help teens think critically about bullying but will also empower them to change both themselves and the circumstances that foster abuse in their schools and communities.
Bullying is a topic that all teens deal with and should be discussed in our schools and classrooms. This resource helps make these conversations easier.
**Thank you to Mathangi Subramanian and Alyssa Washington from Rowan & Littlefield for this guest post**