Book Review: ‘Vicious: True Stories by Teens about Bullying’

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Vicious book coverThis anthology of 21 true stories by teens in Youth Communication’s highly regarded New York City writing program boasts a stylish new paperback design and a new publisher, Free Spirit, known for cutting-edge books about “kids’ social, emotional, and educational needs.” It’s an update of Youth Communication’s 2009 edition, Sticks and Stones, containing eight new stories, five of which address cyberbullying issues not covered in the earlier book. Thirteen stories are reprinted.

An introduction explains that the stories explore the effects of bullying in any form – “physical violence or verbal or online harassment” – from one or more of three perspectives: the bully, the bystander or witness, and the target. By clarifying the actions that overcame tough situations, these young writers “hope that telling their stories will help readers who are facing similar challenges.”

The opening story’s author is among three who chose to write anonymously. From her secure circle of girlfriends – Felicia, Michelle, and Brittany – she flashes back three years to explore her title: “Why Are Girls So Mean?” As freshmen, these girls got tired of Brittany’s long, boring stories, which they criticized behind her back. When they descended into mocking her hair, the author insisted on stopping such negative talk, and they realized they did care about Brittany. Wondering why they had been so unkind, the author researched their behavior, discovering that “girl-on-girl cruelty is a kind of bullying called relational aggression,” found in females of all ages who use exclusion and peer pressure to get what they want.

In “The Very Lonely Bully,” Avad Ratliff describes poor treatment in foster homes since age 6, missing his family split up by his abusive father, and feeling abandoned. “I felt bad so often that I became a bully,” he says. Very self aware, Avad says that two years at home did not stop his bullying behavior because he trusted no one. After he was placed in a residential treatment center at age 12, his mentor, Tammy, 22, helped him by calming his anger, listening, and keeping their conversations confidential. “Her hugs were what did it for me,” he writes. After Tammy helped him reunite with his mother, Avad’s anger lessened.

The book’s longest story, “Bad Boy Gets a Conscience,” is an anonymous, soul-searching confession that traces a bully’s self-transformation. “From the age of 10 to age 14,” it opens, “I was a monster” who “did horrible things to people and didn’t care.” After his one close friend left in fourth grade, the author felt alienated. He was picked on because of his stammer. Taking advantage of his large size, he sat on people if they bothered him. In junior high, he led others in tormenting weak kids, driving six teachers to quit school. In high school, where he knew no one, he became a depressed “nobody,” unsure “how to act toward people if they weren’t in fear of me.” Transferring to an alternative school, he observed his peers to see how they made friends. When some responded to his attempts to start conversations, he began to see “the beauty of people.” Bad Boy’s story offers remarkable insight into the bullying mentality, with encouraging evidence that self-directed change is possible.

Sometimes the viewpoints of the bullied differ little from the bullies. In “Feeling Different,” Isiah Van Brackle expresses a profound sense of isolation. He felt “something at the core of my humanity missing, separating me from everyone else.” Unable to interact, he was tormented by other children and never trusted anyone. In junior high, “when I became indifferent,” he writes, the bullying stopped, and he “fit in with the emo and goth cliques.” As a freshman, Isiah made his first close friend, Jade, who urged him to express his emotions in poetry. The moon became his symbol for himself: “separate from the world, floating in a void of nothingness” – although the moon “has the power to affect the nature of the world.” Having made progress, Isiah longs to be truly understood.

“Gay on the Block” is a self-portrait of “hefty,” six-foot, six-inch Jeremiyah Spears, who acts “a little feminine” and has known he was gay since age 5. When macho guys tormented him, he rarely responded – until they threw a bottle of urine at him. After writing letters of warning with ketchup as fake blood, Jeremiyah fought back physically. His grandmother, born in 1919, raised him with values such as courage and patience. After she died, Jeremiyah moved into a group home for gay and transgendered boys, where he wrote this story, grateful to those who “made me feel that I didn’t have to change myself for anyone.”

Catherine Cosmo’s “The Facebook Fight that Fractured My Face” is a shocking piece about how a stranger – “we’ll call her Sara” – intruded in a Facebook conversation to say that Catherine “shouldn’t have been born because her father was too busy having sex with other men.” After asking Sara why she was insulting someone she didn’t know, Catherine signed off. A few months later, in a confrontation at a party, Sara attacked Catherine, kicking her in the face while 30 people watched. Catherine suffered four facial fractures and scratches on her eye. “The world of reality TV shows has made people quick to view conflict as pure entertainment,” she writes.

“Can I Holla Atcha?” contains Allajah Young’s reflections on “the daily annoyance” of street harassment. Giving examples of “stupid” come-on lines, she asks, “Am I supposed to turn around and smile at you, delighted by your observation?” Many men claim that women who dress provocatively want “the stares and crass comments.” But women want to be attractive, not harassed, she insists. At 17, Allajah worries about girls as young as 11 who don’t understand “the lust and disrespect behind the comments and stares.”

These vivid examples of all-too-common situations are just some of the personal accounts in this powerful collection. A bully can become the bullied, or vice versa. Some stories have no resolution. Others celebrate triumphs or insights. Any story here might be the right one to help a teenager address a difficult situation in his or her life. Bullying leaves few young people untouched; some might wish to join one of the anti-bullying campaigns covered in the concluding articles.

In closing, Miguel Aguela addresses “How Adults Can Help,” citing therapist Jonathan Cohen’s research showing that “adults can significantly change the pattern of bullying” by implementing three strategies with bullies and their targets before problems escalate.

The self-awareness arising from these young authors’ experience of reflection, writing, and being edited is apparent in finished products that offer insight to adults and youth. Because the stories are not organized according to the type of situation – such as cyberbullying or harassment of LGBT youth – the inclusion of an index in this new edition offers welcome access to all topics.

Two other anthologies in this updated series – now called “Real Teen Voices” – include Rage, featuring stories about anger, and Pressure, with stories about stress. Curiously, the series name appears only on back covers, which feature thumbnail shots of all three front covers. In these new editions, those familiar with the many previous story compilations published by Youth Communication will notice the absence of notes at the end of each story that reveal the writer’s age when the story was written; some stories lose impact as a result. Also, an otherwise snappy new look has two design flaws: Pullout quotes are often not on the page where the original text appears, and the moody, black-and-white photographs on each story’s title page are so murky that they are difficult to decipher. Still, the authentic teen voices shine through, with appeal and value for a wide audience.

Contact: www.freespirit.com.