Bullies - especially aggressively hostile girls - are a topic of major interest to Rosalind Wiseman.
In her non-fiction best-sellers, "Queen Bees & Wannabes," and "Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads," the educator explored the way adolescent girls relate to the world and how parents relate to their teenagers.
Wiseman continues the conversation about teenage bullying in the form of a young adult novel, "Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials," which deals with best friends, high school, loyalty and doing the right thing.
"Ironically I discovered, which many authors do, that you can really speak about the truth much more easily in fiction than you do in non-fiction," says Wiseman, explaining why she decided to write fiction this time around. "I was also curious about how to share the stories that kids have told me for the last several years that I’ve never been able to share in non-fiction because it would reveal who they were or where they come from."
The story opens as Charlie, 13, leaves middle school - and some bad experiences - behind her. Charlie’s friends bully another girl during a school trip and Charlie tries to stay out of it.
"They get roomed together and Charlie’s two other friends start to become incredibly mean to Nidhi because they wanted to invite boys to the room and Nidhi says you know, ‘No way.’ It gets really bad and Charlie does nothing," says Wiseman. "Her neutral stance doesn’t really look neutral. It looks like she is siding with the girls who were being mean and racist."
High school gives Charlie a chance to redeem herself.
"She meets Nidhi again," says Wiseman. "But that actually is a way for her to truly reconcile and figure out and take responsibility for her behavior from before."
Although she's previously focused on girls, Wiseman notes that boys have never been strangers to bullying or being targeted by bullies. That’s a part of her novel as well.
On the first day of high school, Charlie meets Will, her former best friend, who had moved away. Now he’s back, looking a lot cuter. And even though he’s only in ninth grade, he’s a member of the school’s Varsity Lacrosse team, playing with older boys. When some of his teammates start bullying him, Charlie tries to get him to report it, but he refuses. Wiseman says that’s not unusual. The fear of embarrassment and pressure from peers and even parents, often prevent boys from admitting they’re being bullied.
"When you have a freshman who is really good at some kind of sport, lacrosse, soccer, football, whatever, the parents are just totally excited. But putting a 9th grade boy with a group of 11th, 12th grade boys has a lot of pressure, I’m not only talking about athletic pressure, but also social pressure," says Wiseman. "That’s a ripe situation for abusive power. But the 9th grade boys don’t want to tell their parents. They wouldn’t come forward and talk about it. That’s the other thing I wanted to talk about in this book."
Will’s behavior, and Charlie’s reluctance to get involved when her friends were making fun of Nidhi, are two of many situations in "Girls, Boys & Other Hazardous Materials," which reflect the reality about bullying.
"I didn’t want it to be too preachy, but bullying - if you take away that word, bullying - it’s really about the way that people are bigoted toward each other, discriminatory against each other, for the countries that they come from, the religion that they are, the color of their skin," says Wiseman. "I wanted to talk about that in real ways."
Wiseman believes that, although bullying is unfortunately often part of the high school and middle school experience, it can be stopped. One way to do that is to teach kids what she calls 'social competency’.
"We have children who are growing up who need to be taught how to handle when they are in a social situation that makes them uncomfortable, holding yourself accountable for what you’ve done to take advantage of someone else. I believe parents not only have to teach their kids their values, they have also to teach them how to speak and what to do when you see social injustice. And schools have to do this as well as parents, because if they don’t, it literally does impact the academic performance of the kids."
Wiseman hopes young readers will find "Girls, Boys & Other Hazardous Materials," interesting, funny and useful in that it prompts discussion about bullying, how to stand up to it and how to stop it.