Wednesday, March 18, 2009

James Preller's Bystander: Realistic Bully Story

Did you know that James Preller came to visit our school? NO!? Well just look here, here, and here to catch up. During his visit, he talked about his new novel coming out in the fall of 2009, Bystander. Fortunately for us, he had just received the advanced reader copies right before arriving in Dublin. Double fortunately for us, he left one behind for us to read and review.

This is a fabulous book. If I were a middle school teacher, I would make this required reading for all students. It is clear that James did his research on a hot topic in schools today. I sat down with the book and three hours later I was finished. For the entire three hours I was on the edge of my seat with that anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach that you get when you watch a suspenseful, thrilling movie. I was so angry at times that I absolutely could not stop reading until I had some resolution to this story.

James Preller does characters about as well as anyone out there in my opinion. In Bystander, he creates a bully so believable in Griffin Connelly that the reader can't help but feel nervous when Griff is doing his dirty work. In so many bully stories, the bully is a big dumb lug that isn't likable. In Griffin Connelly, James Preller presents a real bully. A kid that other kids are attracted to, a kid that the main character describes as almost "pretty", a kid that adults trust, but also sense that something isn't quite right. Griffin is the kid who stirs the pot, gets other kids to do his dirty work, and then somehow, always gets off scott free. He is the kid other kids both fear and admire at the same time. We have all seen a Griffin Connelly on the playground.

Eric Hayes is the perfect bystander. As the new kid, he is looking for friends and his first interaction at his new school is with Griffin, a few days before school starts. Due to intimidation, fear, not knowing anyone else, Eric is drawn into Griffin's circle. He doesn't really participate in the bullying, but he doesn't do anything to stop it either, classic bystander. My first reaction was to be angry with Eric, but then I realized that he was no different than a lot of kids. Real bullies, like Griffin, are extremely charismatic. Kids want the bullies to like them and so they don't buck the system, it's easier to ignore the behavior with the hope of being accepted.

David Hallenback is a sad victim. Hallenback is like a whipped puppy. He is so beaten down by Griffin and his gang that he will do anything to gain their approval. Griffin and his gang are constantly tormenting Hallenback, physically and mentally. The first time Hallenback appears in the story, he's running from Griffin and friends, and he's covered in ketchup. Later in the story they get him on the playground, making sure they are out of the teacher's line of vision and physically abuse him. Eric watches, angry at the treatment, but doesn't do anything. When Eric finally begins to stand up to Griffin, Hallenback is the one who lures him into trouble. My feeling for Hallenback went back and forth between pity and anger almost at the turn of every page.

The plot is believable, quick moving and well developed. At one point I had to keep myself from yelling out a warning to Eric as Hallenback lured him into the pet cemetery. Earlier, I said that I couldn't stop reading until I had some resolution and honestly, when I finished, I'm not sure I felt that I had resolution. When Karen and I discussed this, she reminded me of our conversation with Jimmy. He said that he purposely left the book the way he did, because realistically, bullies are seldom dealt with, and usually get away and move on to another victim, all true, just like this book. It's not an After School Special where everything is fixed in an hour, it's written to be believable.