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