Interview with the author...
What inspired you to write this book? What have your experiences been with bullying at your school?
The lessons in this book are inspired by over a decade of classroom experience. Most of the bullying I faced as a student occurred in middle school, so I was shocked to see it happen with my third graders. The most surprising part, however, was when I realized which students were doing the bullying. Some of my sweetest, smartest, and most seemingly innocent kids are often the ones that do the most harm. I see the same trends and patterns with every class. One thing these kids all have in common is that they do not see themselves as bullies. When kids think of bullying, they imagine the exaggerated characters they see on TV and in movies. But the bully stereotypes of the big, dumb, mean guy or the self-absorbed, air-headed, mean girl do not exist in real life. No one is a bully all the time, but this misconception makes it hard to understand what real bullying looks like. Because kids do not identify themselves with their perception of bullies, they refuse to accept their actions as bully behavior. This problem is what inspired me to write Diary of a Real Bully, uniquely told from the bully’s perspective.
Were you ever bullied? If yes, when? What happened?
I have experienced bullying on many different levels throughout my life. It has never been extreme like the scenarios that play out on tv, but it was enough to impact my self-esteem, reject my beliefs and values, and question my self-worth. I was the only Chaldean in my entire school growing up. Most people had never even heard of our culture. Kids made fun of the food I ate, the clothing I wore, and the business my family owned because it was different from the norm. As I got older, the bullying became less about cultural differences and more about social competition. Girls would tear me and others down to try and lift themselves up. Boys would pick apart our appearances and pit us against each other. School was like a minefield of gossip, sarcasm, dirty looks, and put-downs, most often by what is now called "frienemies" - best friends one minute and enemies the next. Even as an adult, I have experienced bullying in a professional setting. Exclusion is a powerful bullying tool for adults, along with intimidation, negative under-the-breath comments, back-handed compliments, questioning your abilities, eye-rolling, etc., all of which I have experienced in the workplace.
Is there a difference between bullying and kids kidding around?
There is a very fine line between joking and bullying. Too often, kids mask their insults and put-downs as "jokes" and expect the recipient to laugh along, even when it is hurtful. It is only a joke when it is funny to everyone involved. As soon as it's hurtful to anyone, it crosses the line into bullying territory. The number one thing I hear from students when a problem arises is that they were just kidding around, yet I still have a child upset because they were the butt of the joke. Kids need to understand that bullying is when you make someone feel bad, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. For far too long, that type of behavior has been considered acceptable, but all it takes is one negative comment to change a person’s perception of him/herself. It is a slippery slope from subtle bullying to blatant bullying, and it often begins with a joke at someone else’s expense.
How do you define bullying?
At its most basic definition, bullying is any time one person causes physical or emotional damage to another person. On a deeper level, bullying is a continuum with a progression of subtle, “harmless” joking to extreme threat and intimidation. It is a form of power and control that kids learn to use very early on, without fully understanding their tactics, especially since they are nice people who make not-so-nice choices. Kids need to learn that fictional bullies – who are mean all the time – rarely exist, and in reality, we all act like bullies sometimes. The more we recognize and name these behaviors as bullying, the less likely we are to repeat them. Instead of labeling kids as bullies, we need to identify their actions as bullying. With this slight change in language, children are more willing to accept their behavior and take responsibility for it. They begin to realize when their words are hurtful. They become more mindful of the things they say and how they say them. They are more prepared to apologize and change because they understand that their actions do not determine their identity. Kids do not want to be bullies, they are usually just blind to the negative impact their behaviors have on others. It is our job as adults to help them see it.
How long did it take for you to write this book? Can you explain the process?
I actually wrote this book eight years ago as a way to teach my students that bully stereotypes very rarely exist in real life. I wanted them to understand that even the smallest, sweetest, and smartest kids, like themselves, display bullying behaviors. That is how I came up with the main character, Anna, who is essentially the opposite of what someone might imagine when they think of a bully. It didn't take too long to write because I pulled from real experiences, but I spent year after year reading it to my class, seeing their reactions, listening to their discussions, getting their feedback, and fine-tuning it to make the characters relatable, the scenarios realistic, and the lessons valuable. Once I was content with the text, I worked with the illustrator to bring the vision to life and a graphic designer to put it all together.
What is your hope for this book? How do you feel about this accomplishment?
It has always been a dream of mine to become a children’s book author, but this is especially rewarding becauseDiary of a Real Bully addresses an issue that I am so passionate about. My hope for this book is that it will break the bully stereotype, change our conversations, and shift our approach to bully prevention. I want kids to take a realistic look at their behaviors and become more aware of how they can negatively impact others. I hope to continue my work as a bully prevention advocate, because the end of this book is only the beginning of the work I do with my students. We discuss it often, revisit it as needed, and refer to it when problems arise. Anna becomes the symbol of our choices and a reminder that we all act like bullies sometimes, but once we realize it, we can change it. I hope to work with students, parents, and teachers to identify real bully behaviors and teach effective problem solving strategies. If we can teach children about real-life bullying early on, we will have less bullies. If we teach them the skills they need to communicate and solve problems early on, we will have fewer victims. We need common language, effective strategies, and early intervention. We need to identify the bully in all of us, then make a change. That is my ultimate hope for this book.
Do you have a topic for another book that you would like to write?
I have many ideas for books that I would like to write in the future, especially about this topic. My next one would possibly be told from the victim’s perspective, because victims are a big part of the bully problem as well. Breaking the bully stereotype is just the beginning. The next step is empowering kids with the skills they need to communicate effectively. Kids need to say stop when someone is bothering them. They need to share how they feel and why they do not like the behavior. They need to ask for an apology. While it seems simple, I have watched students struggle with these steps every year until they have been taught, modeled, practiced, and applied to their real-life problems. Communication is the most powerful tool in every situation so my next book will focus on those lessons. I would like to write a book from the bystander’s perspective as well. Kids have likely been in all three positions – bully, victim, and bystander – and it would be helpful for them to identify behaviors in each situation and know how to react accordingly.
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