Review: Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Random House 2013. Random House Audio 2013. Reviewed from borrowed copy of audiobook. Making this part of my “vacation reads” series, figuring most of my readers who work in schools are on vacation now or soon will be!

It’s About: Bullying: it’s all over the news. The terrible way children and teens are treated by their peers, both in the “real world” and online via cyber-bullying.

Bazelon looks at bullying in depth: what it is, what people think it is, the way it’s been treated in the news, the manner that anti-bullying classes are incorporated into schools. She does so by examining the stories of three students in detail, as well as taking a historical look at the study of bullying and how children interact with each other.

The Good: A must-read, nuanced examination of what “bullying” is, and isn’t, especially the difference between “drama” (conflicts between kids) and “bullying.” The definition of bullying Bazelon uses (from research by Dan Olweus): “it had to be verbal or physical abuse, it had to repeat over time, and it had to involve an imbalance of power.” “Drama,” because it doesn’t involve that power (or has shifting power dynamics), is a more common occurrence, but still should be taken seriously. Bullying is also “a behavior that peaks in middle school, continues to some degree in high school, and then declines significantly in college.

What to do about bullying and drama? Sticks and Stones looks at how the culture of a school matters, and what anti-bullying programs work and why. Most important? Creating a school culture that doesn’t reward bullying or drama. Creating such a culture is neither easy nor simple; it’s not about a one-time assembly.

Easy or simple: the biggest take-away I had from Sticks and Stones is that bullying (and drama) isn’t easy or simple. Easy or simple reactions or solutions at best, don’t work, or at worst, create a worse problem. Is a bully best served by suspension or being expelled, or is he or she best served by helping them have empathy and other skills to not bully? Add that assumes that the situation is indeed bullying, and not drama between two equals (or two kids with varying degrees of power, depending on the time and situation.) “Drama” has it’s own issues, yes, but since resolving personal conflict is a much-needed skill for adults, part of childhood drama has to be children and teens working it out without adult intervention.

The second biggest take-away? The issue of mental health and children and teens. Some of the reason for the decline in bulling seems to be about the growing maturity of those involved, both in terms of greater empathy and in greater skills to combat or ignore it. Put empathy and awareness aside, there remains the mental health of both the bully and the victim. A child may bully because of underlying mental health issues; a victim may react in ways because they are already fragile because of their mental health.

The third take-away? Bazelon talks about creating a culture of empathy within schools. As I see and observe behavior in media — in TV shows, or in comments sections, or in politics — I think a bigger culture of empathy is needed.

I would like to say more: about the programs discussed, the children Bazelon interviews, the situations examined. Sticks and Stones is so nuanced, and Bazelon’s treatment is such, that I don’t want to give bite size, simplistic confusions. Just, this: Sticks and Stones is a must-read, which offers much to the reader in terms of how best to work with children and teens and what programs to use in schools. Part of the reason I decided to post this now at the beginning of summer vacation for many schools is I think it will give readers who work in schools time to think and plan for what they will do at the start of the next school year. Also, while Sticks and Stones focuses on children and teens, I’d also say it gives a structure for analysis for adults who encounter their own situations involving bullying and/or drama.

Further reading: Defining Bullying, a The New York Times op-ed by Emily Bazelon; review at The New York Times; review at S. Krishna’s Books; Interview with Emily Bazelon at NPR; Can We Really Stop Bullying at Slate. Edited to add The Power of Empathy: Q & A with Emily Bazelon at SLJ.

Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. 2011. Random House Audio. 2011. Narrated by Wil Wheaton. Listened to audiobook from library. Holiday Reads (Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays. And yes, the holiday is St. Patrick’s Day.)

The Plot: Wade Watts has one passion in life: solving the puzzle the late, eccentric, bazillionaire, James Halliday left behind five years before. The first person to solve the puzzle inherits Halliday’s fortune and control over Halliday’s creation, the OASIS, a virtual reality world. In 2044, everything takes place in that virtual world: shopping, friendships, business.

Wade’s just another teen playing games in the OASIS, obsessing over Halliday and trying to figure out the first clue in Halliday’s puzzle. Until something changes: while sitting in Latin class (a virtual class in the OASIS)  the cryptic first clue suddenly makes sense.

Five years after the game began, player one is on the game board and Wade is no longer just another teen.

The Good: Ready Player One is pure, unadulterated fun. It may be set in 2044, but Halliday was a child of the 80s and loved everything pop-culture from the 1980s: TV shows, film, music, computer games. When Halliday designed the contest to determine who would inherit his company and fortune, he used the 80s culture he loved. To understand the contest, to solve the puzzles, requires total immersion into the 1980s. Ready Player One is full of fun references, from Ultraman to Ladyhawke.

I was in high school and college in the 1980s, so got a lot of the references, but Halliday is much more of a computer geek than I ever was and so many things went over my head. Cline’s writing is such that it doesn’t matter. He explains enough about things like Black Tiger that I understood what was going on. Part of the enjoyment of Ready Player One is trying to guess what 1980s pop culture references will be used next, or realizing where a quote or name comes from.

Technically speaking, some of the pop culture is pre-1980s, such as H.R. Pufnstuf; shows like that would have been on reruns, though, so it makes sense to include them.

Wil Wheaton’s narration is brilliant; he totally captures Wade, an eighteen year old who in the “real world” is a poor orphan living in a nightmare trailer park but once in the OASIS is his avatar Parzival, with top knowledge of all things Halliday. Wade has no friends except the local crazy cat lady. Parzival has friends: other avatars, that is, and he spends huge amounts of time “plugged in,” watching films and playing arcade games with these OASIS friends. Wade is both vulnerable and lonely, arrogant and talented, and Wheaton perfectly captures that teenage male.

Wade spends much of his time in the OASIS because the virtual reality is so much more attractive than the real world. In the OASIS, one can literally be anything one wants to be. The OASIS is full of worlds, where magic and science fiction can be real. Breathless action scenes are shown, as Parzival battles enemies and takes risks to achieve his goals, and then Wade reminds us that he’s actually sitting in a chair with a visor and keyboard. It’s not real. Yet, at the same time, it is real. The prize — Halliday’s money — is very real.

The combination of Cline’s writing and Wheaton’s narration is such that at first, one doesn’t realize just how many rules Cline breaks. A ton of set up is needed for the reader to understand this future world, that is both so unlike ours yet very similar. It wasn’t until I began listening to the third CD that I realized that the first few CDs are basically a huge info dump. It’s done smoothly, and it entertains, so it doesn’t matter. It’s not until Wade/Parzival mentions he’s been sitting in a chair, plugged into the OASIS, playing a game that I realized the first part of the book was basically Wade wakes up and goes to school. Since school is in the OASIS, it’s a bit more involved, but, at its heart, that is what happens.

Cline has created a pretty bleak future. There’s a reason people like Wade escape into the OASIS. Yes, it’s fun to live in a world where you can be taller, thinner, better looking.; it’s also the perfect escape from a real world that has gone to hell in a hand-basket. Most of the book takes place in the OASIS, so only a little bit of the real 2044 is shown. There are some very clever bits, such as the future trailer parks being stacked up trailer upon trailer and vending machines that sell guns.

I’ll be honest: I listened to the audiobook, adored it, adored Wheaton telling the story. I’m not sure how I would have felt reading this; at times, Wade was too much of a geek for me. Of course, Wade has to be an uber geek, it is the point of the story and of Halliday’s contest. Part of the fun of Ready Player One is it takes the type of things that are of personal interest (games, TV, movies) and makes them into things that matter. My frustration with Wade aside, there were also a few plot points that left me going, “wait, what?” I think the reader/listener has to be willing to just go with it, to just sit back and enjoy Ready Player One for what it is: a fun read.

Read Roger asks, is Ready Player Onean adult or YA book? Wade’s journey is classic coming of age; he learns life lessons; and while the future is bleak, for the most part, Wade is having so much fun being Parzival that the reader doesn’t always remember it’s a depressing dystopia. Honestly, part of the reason I’d say adult is that, to me, the 1980s nostalgia/love affair is aimed at the adult reader, not the teen.

The Book Smugglers did a joint review; it’s my favorite type of review, because Ana and Thea disagree and I can see where both are coming from.