Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Small Readers: Justin and the Bully by Tony and Lauren Dungy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

There are not a lot of easy readers featuring actual kids, rather than anthropomorphic animals, non-white kids are even rarer, and sports are practically non-existent.

All of that being said, I still did not like this book, specifically its heavily didactic plot.

Justin loves soccer, so he's thrilled when he sees a sign-up for a soccer team in the park and his mom says he can play. His older brother and sister and father all agree that it's good he has signed up because he's good at kicking, he's fast, and he'll be a great teammate. But on the day of the first practice, he meets Taylor. She calls him "Shorty" and tells him he's too little to play and should go home. Justin doesn't feel so good about soccer anymore. When he finally tells his parents what happened, they convince him to try once more and talk to the coach. The coach talks to the team about bullying and being a team player, but Taylor doesn't join in the discussion. Justin feels a lot better about playing soccer. When they have their first game, Taylor calls Justin "Shorty" again and tells the other kids not to pass to him, but they stand up to him and Justin scores. Taylor gives Justin a high-five and "Now we are a team!" she and Justin shout.

Ok, I was going along fine there - yes, it's rather didactic in the "how you deal with a bully" way, but easy readers aren't generally a good place for sublety. The kids are spending most of their mental effort on decoding the actual words, comprehension is secondary. But when I got to the end, So, nobody specifically calls Taylor out - just a generic speech on bullying. Which....doesn't work. She doesn't participate in the discussion and is still calling him names in the middle of the game. It's pure luck one of the other kids heard her and was able to multi-task enough to play soccer and display moral courage at the same time. And, of course, the old tired stereotype of the underdog who wins the game and then everyone likes him. There's no apology from Taylor - she accepts him on the team because he scored a goal and what happens next time he misses?

Verdict: Not surprisingly, the authors of this book work for a variety of athletic/religious/kids organizations and have written a lot of inspirational/motivational books for adults. This appears to be one of a series of easy readers which are all more or less motivational/didactic and apparently feature the Dungy's kids in various sports. I would have gotten the book if they'd managed to change the unrealistic and stereotypical ending; as I said at the beginning, it's hard to find easy readers featuring real kids, diverse kids, and sports. But I don't want to hand kids a book that reinforces the implication that if they just make the goal (lose weight, not be so good at math, make themselves more popular, ignore the bully, make other friends etc.) the bullying will stop and they'll all be friends.

ISBN: 9781442457195; Published 2012 by Simon Spotlight; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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