Friday, January 15, 2010

I am Jack by Susanne Gervay

[I'm reposting this as I've gotten some more feedback. Scroll through to the end, if you're interested.]

Just so you know, this is going to be a very thorough summary (with spoilers) and a long review. With lots of question marks. Because I've been thinking about this book for quite a while and still can't decide what I think.

Jack is a normal eleven year old kid. He does ok in school and has a couple friends he hangs out with, he gets along ok with his younger sister Samantha. He's good friends with his neighbor Annie, even though they never acknowledge each other in school. He's not sure how he feels about his mom's boyfriend, Rob, but since his dad walked out on them years ago it's kind of nice to have another guy around. Jack likes photography, playing ball with is friends, and making jokes.

But sometimes his jokes get him into trouble.

Like the time he made fun of his friend Annie and she wouldn't talk to him for days, no matter how much he apologized. Or when he makes a joke at the expense of the big, dumb school bully, George. He knows George is going to come back and get him.....and he does. First it's just a few bad names. But suddenly the whole school is calling him names. His friends won't talk to him anymore. Every school day becomes a misery as he tries to avoid random shoves, name-calling, and worse.

Jack tries to ignore what's happening at school, but he feels sick whenever he thinks about it. His mom is too busy working long hours to listen to him and he doesn't think telling anybody will help. Sometimes he can forget what's happening when he spends a weekend at the beach with his family, or talks to Nanna. But it's getting worse and worse.

Finally, Annie decides it's too much. She's tried to make the girls stop teasing Jack, but it hasn't worked. She tells Jack's mom and Rob and her own parents. They're horrified and take action; they talk to the school principal and Jack's teacher Mr. Angelou and tell Jack he can leave school and start over somewhere else. But Mr. Angelou has another idea and it's up to Jack to decide if he's tough enough to go back to school and stick up for himself, reporting bullies to the teachers.

With the help of a photography competition, support from adults, and the return of his friends who were too scared to stand up for him, Jack goes back to school. The bullies still try to torment him, but he's not alone now and he and his old friends stand up for themselves.

Ok, so the good: The author does an excellent job of building Jack as a character. He has a family, interests, failures, and successes outside of school and his profile as a bullying victim. The story has a slow, gentle pace and although there are small hints we don't really see anything of his problems at school until midway through the book. It shows perfectly how things get out of hand until suddenly they're horrible; and nobody's quite sure how it happens.

What I'm not so sure about is the ending. The big, dumb bully seems very much like a stereotype. As Mr. Angelou helpfully shows Jack, George can barely write and is, well, stupid. He also has unspecified problems at home We're never told exactly what the anti-bullying campaign does, except for telling students to report every name calling to teachers and putting up posters belittling bullies, such as "What's the difference between the flu and a bully? The flu makes you sick. The bully is sick." Jack and his friends, near the end of the book, fight back against the bullies by....calling them names. Huh? how is this helping? Why can't the bullies report Jack to the teachers?

The message that bullying needs to be stopped, that victims should talk to adults is good. The "issue" of the story isn't emphasized to the loss of the characters and plot and kids who are suffering from bullying may be encouraged by this story to seek help. But the "happy ending" and the downfall of the bullies just feels like wishful thinking to me. The author's foreward says that both she and her son were both bullied. I wonder, is this an example of an actual anti-bullying program? Does it work?

This book was only recently published in the US, but has been hugely popular in Australia and is apparently used in anti-bullying campaigns and programs. I'd like to hear from teachers or school librarians who work with such campaigns in their schools - does this sound like something that would be helpful? It's not something I deal with much in the public library, other than a very firm policy on no name-calling - I've kicked out at least three kids for this after a warning and I've made it VERY clear that the library is a "safe" place. If you can't get along, you get separated or you leave. I'm interested in seeing the sequel, when it comes out in the US. Does Jack really win out over the bullying? How does his character develop? I'd also be interested in seeing a book from the bully's perspective. How does George feel about Jack? What's his life like? Does the anti-bullying campaign make any difference to him?

I'm hoping to pass this on to a couple other librarians and teachers and see what they think, hopefully I'll have some follow-up comments to post in the future.

S. from another small library near my library said: "I didn't like the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness style of writing. The mother's interference and the administration's capitulation to her demands felt too pat in the end. Jack wasn't a sympathetic character and his teasing his friend at the beginning bothered me. Mr. Angelou's about-face from uncaring teacher to concerned adult felt forced and unrealistic. I felt that Jack himself had bullying tendencies that weren't addressed and the sudden antagonism of every single other student was unrealistic."

Verdict: Undecided

ISBN: 978-1582462868; Published October 2009 by Tricycle Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates


jason007 said...

This is a thoughtful and considered review of I AM JACK. The library is one of the safe havens when bullying occurs. It is invaluable that librarians like you care. It is invaluable that I AM JACK opens discussion and emotionally engages readers of all ages.

As a specialist in child growth & development and author, I wrote I AM JACK as a story, but also to engage the bullied, bullies, other kids, friends, parents, teachers and the community in the insidious nature of school bullying; and to heighten awareness that we are all participants; and that we have to act together for social justice.

Bullying is about isolation. When the school community have raised awareness and work together, it counters the culture of school bullying.

Simple actions such as the anti-bullying posters, is not about the posters. It could be any activity. It is symbolic of working together. It's about kids being empowered to act as a group with teacher support for social justice. Creating a safe environment.

When friends feel safe enough to support Jack, it's again about empowering kids to work for social justice. They need a school culture of teacher and parents support to do this.

Bullying occurs for a myriad of reasons and many normal kids will bully another at some time. The kids aren't bad, but it's often caused because of lack of understanding of the impact, because it's fun, many reasons. George the bully, isn't stupid or bad. He has a learning issue in this case. There's no easy answer. There must be actions to keep the other kids safe. George is given pratical help with his reading/writing, kids see the school taking action and that makes them feel safe.

Bullying is about power imbalance and social breakdown. Bullying depends on silence and isolation. 'I Am Jack' in a non threatening way, opens discussion, empowers many kids to make choices for social justice and leadership, heightens the awareness of teachers and parents to bullying.

It's been a successful way of working against school bullying through giving kids a voice through story journey.

Your review shows this in itself as it opens discussion and varied opinions. However everyone's talking.

For more information or if you'd like to contact me, please log onto my website -

Jennifer said...

This is definitely a book where I want to hear the author's perspective and experiences! Thanks for your reasoned and thoughtful comment. I'm currently lending I am Jack to a neighboring librarian and hopefully we'll have some comments from her. I'd like to have a parent-child bookclub in the fall and bullying is one of the "themes" I'm considering addressing. I'm very interested in seeing how other educators, librarians, parents, etc. react to this book.