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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bully, written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2013. $18.99 ages 4 and up

"Wanna play?




It' evident before we get to the title page that the bull whose story this is is not a happy camper! In fact, we see his heartbroken reaction when he is 'bullied' into going away. His sad eyes, his hurt demeanor evoke sympathetic feelings in those who open the book.

Is it a surprise then, when asked by much smaller animals (a rabbit, a chicken and a turtle) if he wants to play that his response is clearly confrontational? He has been hurt, and he intends to make someone else hurt as he does.

In an interview with Jules Danielson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Laura Vaccaro Seeger had this to say:

"I’ve always felt very empathetic when witnessing bullying of any kind, and long ago I’d realized that bullies are saying far more about themselves than those they’re bullying. I’d also discovered that, even though it’s not an excuse, there’s almost always a reason for such behavior. That’s why I felt so strongly that on the opening spread—even before the title page—we witness what made this little bull become such a big bully."

It must be tough to feel that way when you are on the receiving end of some of the ugly things that bullies say and do. But, I think she is absolutely right. Too often, there is a reason for the way they behave. No, it's not an excuse, and it's hard to fathom that what makes a bully so sad and uncomfortable is exactly what they are willing to dole out to others. But, that is the nature of many of such interactions.

She makes it so clear in this seemingly simple book for our youngest readers. There are only 18 words in the book, but they have tremendous power. Every word and image is designed perfectly to show little ones how calling others names hurts, and how it is possible to end it. The small brown bull takes his hurt out on every creature he meets, getting ever bigger with the power to intimidate. The words meant to hurt are perfectly chosen, and make the point without any elaboration.

It isn't until the goat brings its message home that the bull realizes what he has been doing, and reacts promptly. The fence that has been holding them in offers an opening for a better time for all. Ms. Seeger says that her book is about one particular bully, and one solution...not about all bullies. It is an important distinction.

There is a lesson here, but it is gently shared without a hint of being instructive. Every detail is carefully constructed...the red cover, the sad and then surly expression, the emotion of all on the receiving end of his anger, and the peaceful end to a bad experience. Be prepared for talk...isn't that the best part about sharing wonderful books?  

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