Derek Drew is a bully. Allen Ahlberg’s famous ode to Mrs Butler makes it very clear that Derek is a work-copying, rubber-stealing, name-calling tormentor. The rhyme patterns and repeated refrain of this accessible and easily learnt poem have made it a long-time favourite in schools, but the jaunty rhythms and the flippant responses mask the dark content here. Sadly, despite being almost forty years old, the poem remains relatable to children, and bullying remains an all-too-common problem.
From the 15th -19th November 2021, schools the length and breadth of the country will mark the annual Anti-Bullying Week. This campaign, which is run by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), has been going since 2002 and aims to both raise awareness of bullying amongst children, and highlight ways of preventing and responding to it. Despite the best efforts of this campaign, recent studies suggest that not only does bullying continue, but it seems be on the increase in the UK. However, the initiative does serve to highlight the issues and plays its part to help children and young people to feel more aware of what sort of behaviour can constitute bullying, more confident to acknowledge their own feelings and discuss them, and more empowered to stand up to bullying behaviours. Each year, the ABA consult with students to create a theme for the national campaign, and this year, they have decided upon the title One Kind Word.
There isn’t a single kind word in Alhberg’s aforementioned Mrs Butler poem. In each stanza the teacher addresses the child variously as ‘my lamb’, ‘dear’ and ‘my love’ but these terms of endearment are patronising and empty -bordering on cruel- when heard in the context of her dismissive responses to the child’s pleas. Derek Drew’s victim does the right thing by telling their teacher, but Mrs Butler’s exasperated responses do nothing to inspire confidence in the system. Derek is an aggressor and Mrs Butler is enabling his behaviour. All in all, I think this is a perfect poem to kick off Anti-Bullying Week! The class can split into two halves to take the roles of child and teacher and read the poem chorally, or work in pairs. Alternatively, the children can all read the child’s complaint and questions, whilst the teacher can play Mrs Butler. Ask them whether they can come up with more appropriate responses for Mrs Butler. What should she have said or done? Perhaps they could even attempt to rework these responses into an alternative ‘Please Mrs Butler’ poem.
So many fantastic texts explore the theme of bullying. They are worth reading at any time of year of course, but in recognition of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week, I thought I’d share some of my favourites, both old and new, that you may not have come across.
Troll Stinks (Andersen Press 2016)
Whilst most available statistics for bullying refer to older children, unkind behaviour often manifests in the very young and, if left unchecked, can take root. One area of bullying that is now sadly increasing is cyberbullying. According to the latest Office for National Statistics research, in the year ending March 2020 around one in five children aged 10 to 15 years in England and Wales experienced at least one type of online bullying behaviour. This is equivalent to 764,000 children. Last year, a report by Childwise found that most children in the UK own their own mobile phone by the age of seven, and this means that cyberbullying is becoming prevalent even in primary schools. So, just as it’s never too early to teach children about online safety, we should also warn them about the dangers of cyberbullying.
The wonderful literary partnership of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross came up trumps with their apposite story Troll Stinks. Told completely in rhyme, this delightful fable tells of two little billy goats who find and keep a mobile phone and use it to ‘troll’ a troll. The unexpected ending to this tale will delight young listeners but also provides a clear moral.
This book opens up opportunities for rich discussions about the unseen consequences of bullying and warns children of how easy it can be to hurt the feelings of other people, particularly when hiding behind a mobile phone device.
How to be a Lion (Puffin Books 2018)
Children can feel the need to fit in or behave in an expected way from an early age and some children find it all too easy to exclude those who don’t conform to ‘the norm’. Aggression and tantrums can often manifest as young children learn the language of ‘give and take’ and try to find their place in the world. How to be a Lion is a delightful book for younger readers by best-selling author, Ed Vere. This rhythmic tale depicts an unlikely friendship between Leonard the lion and Marianne the duck. It softly shows the reader that “there are so many ways to be you,” even though the general thought is that all lions should be fierce, not gentle, and that “there’s only one way to be a lion…” The book is packed with words of wisdom and acts of kindness, as Marianne teaches her newfound friend Leonard that it’s OK to be gentle and that “chomping friends is a terrible plan”! Vere’s bold and engaging illustrations pair beautifully with the text to create a book that children will want to come back to again and again.
Cloud Busting (Random House Children’s Books 2004).
No review on books with an anti-bullying theme would be complete without a reference to Malorie Blackman’s fantastic novella, Cloud Busting This is a highly original and impactful text in the form of a narrative poem, which doesn’t seem to have the attention in schools that it deserves. I love the honesty and authenticity of the various forms of verse- each style chosen to reflect the changing mood of the story and relationship between the two central characters. The ingenious structure of the writing alone makes this book a must-read, but of course Blackman uses it as the perfect vehicle to deliver her hard-hitting message. A personal recount of classroom dynamics that children will surely recognise culminates in an event that will evoke shock and discomfort in the reader, especially when they realise how quickly bullying can spiral out of control and lead to disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, you can’t help admiring the bravery and emotional growth of the narrator as he confronts his own part in the saga and the aftermath of his actions. This book is perfect for all readers from Year 3 onwards.
The Night Bus Hero (Orion Children’s Books, 2020)
Onjali Q. Rauf is fast becoming my go-to author for promoting social conscience in Key Stage 2. You can rely on her vivid characterisation and action-packed adventures to hook in young readers and then watch in admiration as she cleverly injects difficult themes such as poverty, domestic abuse, asylum seeking and foster care in an entirely appropriate format for young readers. Rauf often draws upon personal experience as an impetus for her writing, but her talent lies with opening windows to the myriad lives of modern families and creating an instant bond between her main characters and the reader. The Night Bus Hero explores the two emotive themes of bullying and of homelessness. Like Cloud Busting, the story is told from the point of view of the class bully- a young boy named Hector- and, similarly, the central character goes of a journey of self-reflection and reparation. Despite the fact that Hector is, quite frankly, a bit of an unpleasant character, you end up rooting for him as he reaches his ‘road to Damascus’ moment and realises it’s up to him to put right the situation he has created. This book is perfect for Years 4 and 5, who will enjoy the pace of the story and try to solve the mystery alongside Hector and his friends.
The Song from Somewhere Else (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016)
The Song from Somewhere Else combines A. F. Harrold’s atmospheric and emotionally charged text with haunting black and white illustrations by the master of evocative realism, Levi Penfold. The book grabs you by the throat from the outset with a startlingly vivid portrayal of an incident of bullying experienced by the central character, Frankie. We soon learn that this is a regular occurrence and the reader is quickly drawn into the girl’s world of fear and dread. Harrold follows Frankie’s experiences with ‘head versus tummy’ conversations that help us understand how this victim tries to navigate her way safely through each situation. There are several such episodes in the book and they would make excellent close analysis reading and discussion if time is short. However, although the book is fairly long, the complete story is so compelling that I’d urge you to carve a place for this with your Y5 or 6 class. The uniqueness of the story is the protagonist’s burgeoning friendship with another victim of bullying and the fantasy element that Harrold then weaves into the narrative. This takes the book into an unexpected direction as we discover layer upon layer of bullying in various guises.
Short animated stories
Finally, the Literacy Shed has a couple of great short animated films with a bullying theme: For the Birds is a bright and simple moral tale of exclusion based on looks and ‘otherness’. It would work nicely for KS1 children, who will love the comedic bird characters but be very clear about the message behind the cartoon. The second, Wing, is aimed more at KS2 and is a darker, atmospheric tale of a creature bullied for having only one wing. This animation would open up rich discussion and writing about bullying people who look different to others or who have disabilities, but also the importance of friendship and being a kind heart in the darkness. I love the quotation at the end of the animation from the Italian writer, Luciano de Crescenzo: 'We are, each of us angels with only one wing; and we can only fly by embracing one another.'
Whilst many of the available statistics on incidences of bullying in school focus on secondary age children, we are all aware that this problem can affect young people of any age and anywhere. Lockdown left many children vulnerable to bullying and less adept at dealing with it; the long- term effects on families and communities is taking its toll on resilience and well-being. So perhaps this year is especially important to start an early dialogue with pupils: helping them recognise the different ways bullying can manifest; why it is wrong; what to do if they are being bullied or see it happening to someone else. Remind them that ‘one kind word’ can be what it takes to overturn a situation or make a person feel better about themselves. Whilst we may never be able to eradicate bullying entirely, we can teach children the valuable lesson that kindness always prevails over hatred. I hope these suggestions inspire some important conversations this anti-bullying week and beyond…