Blubber -- Judy Blume
I'd forgotten that Blubber is narrated by a bully:
We made Linda say, I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206. We made her say it before she could use the toilet in the Girls' Room, before she could get a drink at the fountain, before she ate her lunch and before she got on the bus to go home. It was easy to get her to do it. I think she would have done anything we said. There are some people who just make you want to see how far you can go.
Man, Judy Blume totally Gets It. She knows how kids work. Throughout the book, Jill hears adults say things like "just laugh it off" and "just ignore them".
(I'm swearing right now that I will never, ever give that advice to my children. Also on the list:
Someday, you'll laugh about this.
That's the worst one. But that's irrelevant because it isn't in the book. Onward with Blubber.)
What some grown-ups don't realize is that every single kid gets that same advice, even the bullies:
After I read the note I said, "Ha ha..." remembering that my mother told me a person should always be able to laugh at herself. I tried to laugh as hard as the rest of the kids to show what a good sport I could be.
"Goo goo..." Robby Winters said. "See Baby Brenner laugh!"
That afternoon, when I got on the bus, Wendy stuck out her foot and tripped me. I fell flat on my face and my books flew all over the place. I tried to laugh again but this time the laugh just wouldn't come.
Yeah. Laughing it off doesn't work. Especially if you aren't able to laugh it off convincingly. Kids are young, not stupid.
It also doesn't help if your classroom teacher is totally oblivious to the social situation. (Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't help if the classroom teacher IS aware of the bullying -- note to all teachers and future teachers: Never try to force bullies to play nicely with their tormentees. It will not go well.)
Really, I don't have a whole lot so say about this one, other than that Judy Blume is a genius. As someone who had a particularly miserable fifth-grade experience, I feel that I'm especially qualified to say: Blubber came out in 1974 and it still rings true today. There were parts of the story that made me shudder. (If that doesn't do it for you, the entire book is worth reading for the character of Ms. Rothbelle, the music teacher. She's only around for a few pages, but she's perfect.)
It's especially impressive that Jill comes off as a pretty sympathetic -- even more so than Linda, who is not a very attractive character, even with the underdog advantage. Part of it, I think, is that Linda isn't a fighter. She lets people trample over her (kind of like Piggy in Lord of the Flies, actually), and the kids hate her for it. When Jill ends up in Linda's position, she A) fights back, and B) turns the bullies against each other, which kind of defuses the gang mentality. But there isn't really a happy ending: she doesn't make up with Wendy & Co., and she doesn't ever become friends with Linda. Things just... level out.
Blubber gets challenged on a semi-regular basis because the bullies never get punished. (It probably also gets challenged due to the two or three instances of swearing, but whatever.) Really. How many bullies do you remember getting punished? And of those that were, how many of the the bullied kids got pounded for it later? God forbid that kids actually read something realistic. Sheesh.