Bullying is a tough topic, but these great new middle-grade books tackle it head-on. Without flinching from the pain it causes, they manage to be encouraging, inspiring, and sometimes even entertaining.
Maybe He Just Likes You, by Barbara Dee
It started with an unexpected hug from a boy Mila wasn’t particularly friends with. It didn’t stop there. Every day, that boy and his friends would touch her, hug her, and crowd her in the halls, at band practice, and on the bus. They didn’t quit it when she asked them too. Maybe, like her friend Zara says, Mila was just being immature about flirting? But then she finds out that she’s been made into a game, with the boys keeping score of everything they do to her. No one is hearing her words of protest, until she finally makes herself heard in a way that can’t be ignored at the school band concert! This is a spot-on portrayal of middle school sexual bullying that’s also a gripping and heartwarming story. It’s great to see the school staff finally taking action and to see Mila developing self-confidence through her newfound love of martial arts.
The Tornado, by Jake Burt
Bell has a true engineer’s knack for designing complex systems, like the chinchilla habitat filling his room. His most important system gets him through fifth grade without attracting the notice of Parker, a truly nasty bully, who always avoids being blamed for the mean things he does. Bell has timed his schedule down to the seconds to keep himself safe. Then a new kid, Daelynn, arrives, and with her brightly dyed hair and quirky clothes, she’s an attention magnet. Sure enough, Parker switches to bullying her, and Bell is free. But when Bell realizes his freedom comes at her expense, he decides to stand up to Parker. And fortunately (perhaps) he and his best friends have just built Leonardo da Vinci’s tank as a school project…Though Parker is the most frightening bully in this list, the story isn’t gloomy. Bell has great friends and parents, and Daelynn’s refusal to conform is inspirational. Plus the tank building project is pretty darn cool!
Sam Saves the Night, by Shari Simpson
Here’s one that mixes bullying with intriguing fantasy! Every night, Sam sleepwalks (dramatically and dangerously), and she can’t stay awake in school. A mean girl and her gang constantly make fun of her for it. Nothing has helped until she visits an alternative sleep specialist. That night, Sam finds her soul has separated from her body. Now she’s one of the SleepWakers; kids like herself who roam the night, joining together in various groups while their bodies rest. The nicest, most popular middle grade girl, Madalynn, is also a SleepWaker, who wants Sam to join her group. Sam is tempted, but then finds that night-time Madalynn is a controlling bully, who wants to use Sam as a cat’s-paw in a nasty bit of revenge against Sam’s daytime tormentor. The only way for Sam to stop Madalynn from taking over the night is to unite all the various groups of SleepWakers against her, but it’s tough going. A fun and fascinating twist on bullying stories.
The Best At It, by Maulik Pancholy
Rahul Kooper is nerdy, quirky, and anxious about starting seventh grade, so his grandfather encourages him to find something he’s really good at, and then become the Best at it. Rahul takes this to heart. If he can be Best at something, bullies like Brent and his minions will leave him be at school. With his best friend Chelsea cheering him on, he tries to make himself someone he isn’t. Rahul is realizing he’s gay, one of the things Brent’s bulling him about. When he owns this truth, and finds the courage to be Best at being simply himself, he’s able to free himself from his fear of Brent (though probably Brent will keep on being a jerk….). There’s lots in this story of family and friendship that’s funny and touching (Rahul’s misguided attempt to join the school football team is both), and Rahul is a character to cheer for as he makes progress at figuring out what really matters.
On Thin Ice, by Michael Northrop
Ked doesn’t have much to lose. A progressive spine condition makes his life painful, and has left him socially isolated and the targeted by bullies. His mom took off, and now his gambling-addicted dad (a great father otherwise) has bet the rent money, risking the one thing Ked has left—his home. So Ked “borrows” a bit of what’s left of the rent money stash, to buy, rebuild, and resell a vintage motor bike. But to fix it up he has to become part of the school’s Maker Club, where the bully he fears most holds sway. The bully almost ruins the bike, but when Ked saves his life, he steps in to help get it up and running. Realistically, the boys don’t become friends, but at least the way is cleared for Ked to reclaim a normal social life. Ked’s a tremendously appealing kid, and his struggles are engrossing (even the detailed description of small engine repair was interesting to non-mechanically minded readers!).
What MG novels would you recommend that address bullies and bullying?