The bullies, the victims, and the silent bystanders

“Another thing I think about names is that they DO hurt. They hurt because we believe them. We think they are telling us something true about ourselves, something other people can see even if we don’t.”      — James Howe in The Misfits


Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. Ages 7-10. This timeless little novel remains one of the most powerful explorations of bullying in children’s literature. First published in 1944, Estes sets her  story in a cliquish, Waspy little town. Wanda Petronski is from a family of Polish immigrants. She has a strange name. She wears the same clean but faded blue dress to school every day. After Wanda confides to popular Peggy that she has 100 dresses, she gets taunted daily. Then one day, she’s gone. Her father informs the school they’re moving to the big city, where plenty of people have “funny” names. Yet another surprise comes when Wanda’s lovely drawings of 100 dresses win the school art contest. The girls, even queen bee Peggy, regret their behavior, but it is too late to make amends. Especially moving is the response of Maddie, the bystander too afraid to intervene. Maddie reaches the decision that she will never again remain silent while someone gets bullied in her presence. Since research indicates that most children tend to be bystanders, it is important to teach them to stand up for what’s right, even (or especially) when it means contradicting the “in” crowd.


Polacco, Patricia. The Junkyard Wonders. Philomel, 2010. Drawing on her own experiences as a dyslexic child, Polacco tells how young Tricia landed in the “junkyard” class for kids who had learning differences. The children were taunted and ridiculed and felt like cast-offs, but their wise and nurturing teacher, Mrs. Peterson, saw their gifts and helped them realize their potential. The story, while lengthier than most picture books, has plenty of conflict and action and can easily be read in two sessions. Allow time to discuss the need to value each person and to resist judging on the basis of appearances. Then share Polacco’s concluding note, in which she reveals the stellar achievements of her “junkyard” classmates.

More picture books that explore bullying:

  • Anholt, Laurence. Camille and the Sunflowers: A Story About Vincent van Gogh. Barron’s, 1994. Ages 6-8.  A boy and his family befriend the lonely painter who has a unique perspective.
  • Bateman, Teresa. The Bully Blockers Club. Ages 5-7. Lottie is tired of being bullied, so she starts a club where everyone is welcome.
  • dePaola, Tomie. Trouble in the Barkers’ Class. Ages 5-7. When the new girl acts like a bully, the students try talking to her and ignoring her until she finally figures out a better way to treat others. Also, see dePaola’s Oliver Button Is Not a Sissy.
  • DiSalvo, Dyanne. Spaghetti Park. Ages 7-9. A community unites to fix up their park and manages to persuade the bullies to join them.
  • Fierstein, Harvey. The Sissy Duckling. Ages 5-8. Elmer’s interests are different from the other male ducks. His father doesn’t sympathize, and after getting bullied at school, Elmer decides to run away from home. After Elmer saves his father’s life and looks after him until he’s well again, the father realizes he should be proud of his brave son.
  • Fleischman, Paul. Weslandia. Ages 7-10. The neighborhood kids torture Wesley for being different, but in time they learn to appreciate his ingenuity, as he creates his own wild and wondrous civilization.
  • Howe, James. Pinky and Rex and the Bully. Ages 6-8. Short chapter book, easily read in two sessions. Pinky got his nickname because his favorite color is pink. When boys at school tease him because of that, he initially tries to change his ways. But a kind, elderly neighbor helps him realize how important it is to be true to yourself. This engaging story presents great opportunities to discuss bullying and gender-based stereotypes.
  • Howe, James. Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores. Atheneum, 1999. Ages 6-8.  Three mice friends learn it’s more fun to include others than to exclude them.
  • Kellogg, Steven. Island of the Skog. Puffin, 1993. This is a must-read picture book that can be appreciated and discussed on many levels. A group of mice, tired of living in fear, sail off to find a peaceful home. They land on an island inhabited by one skog. That’s when fear and conflict creep in again. Discuss how the mice approached the creature and how they could have made better choices.
  • Lester, Helen. Hooway for Wodney Wat. Ages 5-8. The other kids tease Rodney, but his way of speaking is what helps defeat the classroom bully.
  • Michelson, Richard. Busing Brewster. Random House, 2010. Ages 7-10. This is an unusual, sensitive picture book set in Boston during the contentious 1974 court-ordered busing. Brewster and his brother experience taunts by children and adults when they start at the white school. Fortunately, Brewster finds caring, helpful Miss O’Grady, the librarian, who encourages Brewster in his goal to become president some day.
  • Moss, Peggy. Say Something. Tilbury, 2004. A child who doesn’t speak up when other children are bullied finds herself in that position one day.
  • O’Neill, Alexis. The Recess Queen. Scholastic, 2002. Ages 5-8. Mean Jean was the playground bully nobody contradicted until the new kid, sweet, sassy little Katie Sue broke the rules and even invited Jean to become her friend.
  • Swope, Sam. The Araboolies of Liberty Street. Random, 1995. Ages 6-8. Horrors! The Araboolies don’t conform to General Pinch’s standards! They must go! No, decide the neighbors, that intolerance must give way to freedom, respect, and individuality.

For middle-school and up, consider such novels as …

  • Blume, Judy. Blubber. Ages 9-12.
  • Hiassen, Carl. Hoot. Ages 10-14.
  • Howe, James. The Misfits. Ages 10-14.
  • Spinelli, Jerry. Loser. Ages 10-14.




What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?

Peace-Promoting Books Every Child Should Hear

Bang, Molly. When Sophie Gets Angry, Really Really Angry. Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1999. Simple, powerful picture book shows how a child feels out of control but calms down as she spends time with nature. Bang’s striking illustrations reflect the varied feelings Sophie experiences and enhance the reader’s appreciation of them. Use this to discuss how being outdoors can help people find inner peace.

Borton, Lady. Junk Pile. New York: Philomel, 1997. Jamie, whose father has a junk yard, knows how to fix the school bus. She also has to figure out a way to deal with a bully.

Bosca, Francesca. The Apple King. A self-centered, greedy king learns the value of sharing after worms invade his apples and tell him how the apples feel.

Bryan, Ashley. Beautiful Blackbird. Renowned author-illustrator Bryan has retold a lively folktale celebrating the many hues of beauty.

Bunting, Eve. One Green Apple. An Iraqi immigrant girl, with a little encouragement from a classmate, begins to adjust to her new home in the U.S.

da Costa, Deborah. Snow Falls in Jerusalem. A stray cat brings together a Jewish boy and an Arab boy, who discover they have much in common.

DeFelice, Cynthia. One Potato, Two Potato. A fresh take on an Asian folktale, DeFelice sets hers in Ireland and reveals the importance of sharing and of gratitude in bringing about personal happiness.

Demi. Gandhi. Simon & Schuster, 2001. Demi’s richly colored miniature paintings enhance this moving story of the hero who has inspired so many people by his effort “to root out the disease of prejudice, but never to yield to violence and never to use violence against others.”

DiSalvo-Ryan, Dyanne. Spaghetti Park. Neighbors in a diverse neighborhood decide they must work together to restore their park. Also see this author’s A Castle for Viola, about a family that gets a simple, safe home at last.

Fleischman, Paul. Weslandia. This story celebrating diversity is the author’s best picture book.

Forrest, Heather. Wisdom Tales From Around the World. Little Rock: August House, 1996. Traditional stories that reflect wisdom of many cultures and religions.

Hoose, Phillip and Hannah. Hey Little Ant. Tricycle, 1998. A great little parable where the golden rule can come alive for children.

Jaffe, Nina. The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales From Around the World. New York: Holt, 1998. Folktales feature characters who face an obstacle and must decide about what is fair or just. Also, see While Standing on One Foot: Puzzle Stories and Wisdom Tales from the Jewish Tradition.

Keats, Ezra Jack. Goggles. Boys outsmart neighborhood bullies and then enjoy the treasured goggles they found.

Kellogg, Steven. The Island of the Skog. New York: Dial, 1973. Tired of their dangerous environment, Jenny and her friends sail off to an island, only to confront fear in the form of a “skog,” the island’s lone inhabitant. The characters learn the importance of communicating in a friendly manner.

Kimmel, Eric. Brother Wolf, Sister Moon. Don’t miss the memorable legend “Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio,” in which the hero employs techniques for peacemaking to save a town terrorized by a hungry wolf.

Kinsey-Warnock, Natalie. Nora’s Ark. Neighbors help each other survive a flood.

Lester, Helen. Hooway for Wodney Wat. Rodney, taunted for his speech, becomes a hero after he rids the class of a bully.

Levitin, Sonia. All the Cats in the World. New York: Harcourt, 1982. An elderly woman is taunted by the lighthouse keeper when she feeds the nearby abandoned cats. After she becomes ill, he realizes he was wrong. Also see her humorous, wise Who Owns the Moon?

Martin, Rafe. The Monkey Bridge. Illus. by Fahimeh Amiri. Knopf, 1997. Based on a Buddhist jataka tale, Martin tells how monkeys teach a king to share the delicious fruits of the “Treasure Tree.”

McBrier, Page. Beatrice’s Goat. The gift of a goat enables a girl in Uganda to go to school. Based on the work of the Heifer Project.

Macdonald, Margaret. Peace Tales : World Folktales to Talk About. Collection of multicultural folktales includes “Lifting the Sky,” which illustrates the importance of working together to achieve results.

Milway, Katie Smith. One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference. Kids Can Press, 2008. Kojo, who  lives in a poor village in Ghana, borrows enough coins to buy a hen. That hen produces eggs, and Kojo sells the surplus eggs at the market. Kojo’s business grows, and he is able to help others. The bright acrylic illustrations help make this informative account lively and engaging A brief biography of the actual Kojo is included.

Mills, Lauren. The Dog Prince. A poor girl teaches an arrogant prince a lesson in humility and empathy.

Moss, Peggy. Say Something. A child who doesn’t object to others being bullied realizes the importance of saying something when she herself experiences taunts.
Muth, Jon. Stone Soup. Muth retells a beloved old French folktale and transports it to China. Instead of hungry soldiers, he features three monks who know the importance of community in making people happy. This picture book presents a feast for the eyes, heart and mind.
————– Zen Shorts. Humorous stories featuring a panda and Muth’s lighthearted watercolor paintings show the value of simplicity and gratefulness.

Nivola, Claire A. Planting the Trees of Kenya. Farrar, 2008. Beautifully written and illustrated picture-book biography of Wangari Maathai, first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Maathai, educated as a biologist in the U.S., returned to Kenya to find devastating erosion caused by commercial farming. She set about teaching the people to plant trees and take care of the land. This book gives adults a lovely way to show children how each person — and each tree — can help our world.

Partridge, Elizabeth. Kogi’s Mysterious Journey. New York: Dutton, 2003. Kogi frees a fish and finds himself transformed into a fish, experiencing a world of peace and wonder.

Preus, Margi. Peace Bell. Holt, 2008. Uncovering a little-known inspiring, true story, Peace Bell tells how a beloved old temple bell was taken from a Japanese village during WWII. The villagers, assuming it was melted down for weapons, are joyous when the citizens of Duluth, Minnesota, return the bell as a gesture of goodwill.
Rappaport, Doreen. John’s Secret Dreams. Il. by Bryan Collier. Disney, 2004. This powerful picture-book biography celebrates Lennon’s hopes for peace in the world. Rappaport’s accessible  text is enhanced by Collier’s lively, lyrical collages that unfurl Lennon’s lyrics. Enhance this story further with your own recording of Lennon’s songs.

Rappaport, Doreen. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Il. by Bryan Collier. Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2001. This writer-illustrator team again take the genre to a new level. Rappaport expertly focuses on the highlights of King’s life and his own powerful words. These words shine with Collier’s collages, which  utilize cut-paper, photographs, and watercolors.

Sasso, Sandy Eisenberg. Cain & Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2001. Two brothers become angry, and violence comes to the world.

Scanlon, Liz Garton. All the World. Beach Lane, 2009. Lovely, gentle story that instills a sense of peace and appreciation of the world.

Schwartz, Howard, retel. The Diamond Tree. Collection of Jewish folktales includes “A Palace of Bird Beaks,” where King Solomon must learn the value of listening and of humility.

Smith, Chris. One City, Two Brothers. This folktale known to both Jews and Arabs is a story of hope and brotherhood and also of the founding of Jerusalem.

Steig, William. Amos and Boris. Doubleday, 1971. Beloved story of an unlikely friendship between a mouse and a whale.

Tutu, Desmond and Douglas Carlton Abrams. God’s Dream. Candlewick, 2008. In simple, reassuring words, Tutu tells how God dreams of a world where all  children join hands in peace. A warm palette and large digitally enhanced illustrations by Leuyen Pham contribute to the loving tone of this book.

Wells, Rosemary. Yoko. The other children make fun of Yoko’s lunch because it is different. The one who tries her sushi, however, likes it and becomes her friend.

Williams, Karen Lynn and Khadra Mohammed. Four Feet, Two Sandals. Eerdmans, 2007. Two refugee children overcome their differences and become friends as they share a much-needed pair of sandals. Also see Williams’ other books, especially Galimoto, about a resourceful child who makes toys from scraps, and Circles of Hope, an ecological story set in Haiti.

Winter, Jeannette. The Librarian of Basra. Simple, moving and true story of Alia Baker, the librarian of Basra who risked her life to save the community’s books before the 2003 Iraq War destroys the public library.
—————— Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story From Afghanistan. A caring grandmother takes Nasreen to a school hidden in the home of a brave woman who is determined to offer girls an education. 2010 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

Wood, Douglas. Old Turtle and Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. A girl talks to Old Turtle, who tells her how to mend the broken truth that can heal a cruel, violent world.

Woodson, Jacqueline. The Other Side. New York: Putnam, 2001. Two girls, one white and one African-American, get to know each other as they sit on the fence that divides their town.

Yolen, Jane. Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys. Yolen has retold folktales in which the hero uses his imagination or cleverness to resolve conflicts.

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