Publishers take swipe at bullies
March 27, 2013 10:40 AM

Nobody likes a bully — but these days the book industry loves having them to kick around.

Publishing houses are flooding the market with titles that tackle bullying. The books are aimed at all age groups — from “Bully,” a picture book for elementary-grade students, to the “The Bully Book,” for middle school children, about an average kid who suddenly becomes everyone’s favorite victim, to “Sticks and Stones” by Emily Bazelon, a recent release for adults that includes both stories and analysis. According to World Cat, a catalog of library collections worldwide, the number of English-language books tagged with the key word “bullying” in 2012 was 1,891, an increase of 500 in a decade.

There are even more to come, said Elizabeth Bird, who tracks coming books and trends for youth collections at the New York Public Library. “Bullying has always been a popular topic, but this year we are seeing bullying titles coming out as never before, and there is no end in sight.”

The publishing world’s preoccupation with bullies does not end at the bookshelf. Several publishing houses, including Random House, Simon & Schuster and even Harlequin, have started anti-bullying campaigns built around their books. Authors have taken action on their own as well. Two young-adult authors, Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones, assembled an anthology of personal essays, called “Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories,” (HarperTeen 2011) by prominent writers like R.L. Stine, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.

Hall and Jones also came together to form and maintain a Facebook site called Young Adult Authors Against Bullying that identifies cruel Facebook pages and lobbies to have them taken down.

Bullying has become such a common topic for authors that in October there will be a conference in Missouri for authors of books on the subject. There is space for only 300 participants but already 80 have signed up to attend.

The surge in anti-bullying books reflects the broader cultural alarm about the problem, spurred in part by several high-profile cases of cyberbullying that resulted in suicides.

The White House held its first conference on bullying prevention in 2011. In response to government cues, libraries, schools and even bookstores like Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest retail book chain, have been holding events to talk about the problem and provide help for parents and children. Those resources often come at least in part in the form of books and lectures by authors.

For publishers and authors it has been hard to miss the perfect synergy that results: They can promote a cause that most people avidly support while promoting their own products.

“The intention is service to help the teachers and librarians who are looking for resources,” said Michelle Fadlalla, director of education and library marketing for Simon & Schuster, which published the early anti-bullying success “The Misfits” in 2003 and this year published “Justin and the Bully” by former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. “At the same time it is definitely an opportunity for us to gather sales because it is such a hot topic.”

A case in point is “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, a book about a boy with facial deformities that came out last year and is No. 1 on The New York Times children’s middle-grade best-seller list, with more than 350,000 copies. Although it was not written as an anti-bullying book, many teachers and librarians began assigning it that way to students. The publisher, Random House Children’s Books, saw an opportunity and created a “Choose Kind” campaign based on sentiments expressed in the book, in which individuals or classrooms can pledge to do acts of kindness.

The book’s message of tolerance and empathy is so popular that this year both Fairfield, Conn., and Santa Monica, Calif., chose “Wonder” for their communitywide reading initiatives.

Marketing opportunities do not completely explain the boom in the number of titles, however. Heather Brewer, the author of “The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod” vampire series, about being an outsider, said that bullying strikes a common chord with many authors.

“There is a certain personality to being a writer, a quirky introverted type maybe not as socially adept, and they tend to be picked on a little bit more than others,” she said in an interview.

Brewer is organizing the anti-bullying writers’ conference in October in part because she was a victim herself when she was growing up in Columbiaville, Mich. “I would have books knocked out of my hand,” she said. “I would be pinched and shoved. So letting people know about the dangers of bullying is important to me.”

Hall, who collaborated on the “Dear Bully” anthology after Phoebe Prince, a bullied high schooler from South Hadley, Mass., committed suicide in 2010, said she had to turn away authors who wanted to be included in the collection.

“A lot of the authors say books saved their lives during those difficult teen years,” Hall said. And authors, in turn, can be fiercely protective of their vulnerable, bookish readers. “They know that their fan base is people like them,” she said, “people who consider reading as a refuge. We want to be there for teens to let them know it will get better.”

Surviving a mean-spirited peer is an age-old element of young-adult literature of course. But the context has changed, said Gillian Engberg, an editor at Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Instead of being a rite of passage that must be endured or to be overcome, it is now analyzed in a much more psychological way. Some books, like “Leverage,” which depicts the rape of a male high-school gymnast by three football players, are graphic and decline to offer happy endings.

Several books now include the perspective of not just the victim but also of the bully, bystanders and even the adults who enable or ignore the behavior. “There is a nuanced approach,” Engberg said. “We are seeing more and more of these books that take on all of these perspectives.”

Jay Asher, the author of the best-selling novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” (2007), about a girl who sends tapes to people explaining their roles in her decision to take her own life, said the biggest difference for books about bullying now is the level of adult concern about the issue.

He said he is now asked to speak at schools three or four times a month, as well as to adult groups. What’s more he is often asked to speak in conjunction with others, like representatives from suicide-prevention help lines. Asher, 37, said he sees a real change from the time when he was growing up.

“What is different now is that adults really take this stuff seriously,” he said, “and they don’t want to turn their backs.”

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