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Hate List, by Jennifer Brown
 

The Story

At the end of junior year, Valerie's boyfriend Nick opened fire in their school cafeteria, killing several people, before killing himself. Valerie was shot trying to stop him, and ended up saving the life of another classmate. The targets appeared to be from the Hate List that she and Nick created--a list of people and things they hated. Now, five months later, Valerie is trying to return to school for her senior year and face the kids who still wonder if she was in on Nick's plan. She must confront her own guilt over her part in the tragedy before she can make amends and move on with her life.

The Scoop

This story is, all at once, horrifying, poignant and powerful, and the subject matter is very mature. The book alternates between the day of the shooting, the early days of Nick and Val's relationship and her return to school in the present. The reader understands why Valerie had a Hate List: she and Nick were outcasts at school, and were called names and bullied. But she also "hated" things like algebra and certain annoying celebrities. For her, the list was about venting frustration--something every teen can relate to. Tragically though, it was something quite different to Nick. With the help of her therapist, and under the supervision of her scared and now over-protective mother, Valerie works hard to confront her guilt and fears and get back to school. She (like many teenagers) is so focused on her own struggles, that she can’t see that her classmates act the way they do because they too have demons and insecurities. Teens will relate to the social dynamics in Valerie’s high school, her strained relationship with her parents, and her efforts to figure out who she really is inside. The ending is thought-provoking—hopeful, yet without any neatly wrapped up answers, which is perhaps a real-life parallel that some will recognize. The book could lead to good discussions about social conduct and how a little understanding of what makes people tick can go a long way.
 

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Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
 

The Story

Misery loves company and fellow social outcasts Eric and Sarah have a friendship deeply rooted in such. Eric’s obesity and Sarah’s disfiguring scars have made them targets of vicious and cruel bullies for years. Eric is at a loss as Sarah, notorious for her toughness and her biting tongue, sits in a psychiatric hospital, completely unable or unwilling to speak. Desperate to help the most important friend he has, Eric searches for answers that will pull Sarah up from the depths of despair.

The Scoop

Poignant, moving, and deep, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes bravely addresses controversial and mature subject matter. Chronic and extreme child abuse is at the heart of this story and horrific instances are detailed. A main character was intentionally burned by her father, who further refused plastic surgery for her in order to make her tough. Public humiliation, extreme bullying, and vengeful pranks all take place. Serious issues such as abortion, suicide, religion, and moral beliefs are debated and discussed in a high school class. One character discusses her own abortion and the feelings she has as a result, and another character attempts suicide. Language is graphic and frequent, and teen smoking and chewing tobacco are referenced. Dysfunctional families abound, though one single parent and son relationship is portrayed as a close and positive one. An incredibly strong female role model in the form of a teacher/coach is key to the storyline. The depths to which one will go to remain loyal to a friend would make excellent discussion material. Multi-layered and extremely thought provoking on many levels, this worthwhile read is most appropriate for older teens, rather than the publisher's recommended age of twelve and up.

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The Misfits, by James Howe
 

The Story

Bobby and his tight-knit group of friends are all misfits of one sort or another, and all have been the target of cruel name-calling. When their middle school student government election approaches and the usual groups are headed up by the usual suspects, Bobby's friend Addie decides a change is in order. She spearheads a new political party so that a new voice can be heard, and the No-Name Party is born, much to the chagrin of the school administration. When the usually quiet Bobby speaks up, speaks honestly, and speaks from the heart about nicknames and taunts, people actually begin to listen and care. No matter who wins the election, the creation of No-Name Day and the fact that they drew attention to an important issue makes winners of all the misfits.

The Scoop

This important and worthwhile book inspired the national event, No Name-Calling Week, which most recently took place January 24-28, 2011. Created by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing, and along with over forty national partner organizations, this project aims to focus national attention on the problem of name-calling in schools, and spreads a message of respect and anti-bullying. For more information visit nonamecallingweek.org. The main characters in this book have all been the subject of taunts based on either weight, height, intelligence, or sexual orientation. Homosexuality is openly discussed and is accepted within the core group of friends. Homophobic slurs and cruel names in general are used often to illustrate a point and convey the main message of the story. Grief is central to the story, as main character Bobby's mother has passed away from cancer and he and his father are still trying to heal and move on from her death. The awkwardness of crushes and middle school dating is realistic and relatable. The Misfits is an excellent choice for a middle school book club and its numerous valuable messages make for rich discussion material.
 

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The Skin I'm In, by Sharon G. Flake
 

The Story

Maleeka is teased at her rough middle school about everything from the color of her black skin, to her homemade clothes, and her zany single mother. When a new teacher arrives at her school, whose face is blotched with a white patch, Maleeka knows this teacher is in for a rough ride. But, Miss Saunders is different than anyone at school could have suspected. She loves the skin she is in. Can she help Maleeka to love her skin--and herself, too?

The Scoop

This is a fairly clean and easy read for mature tweens and teens with some very important life lessons. Maleeka's father has died and she lives with her mother who is a little "off" but loving and supportive. They are poor and teased about it. The peer pressure at her school and among her own friends is intense, and Maleeka makes several poor choices as a result. She does a girl's homework in exchange for borrowing clothes, tries smoking and gets caught, and even goes along with her friends' plan to vandalize Miss Saunders' room. Maleeka likes Miss Saunders deep down but is afraid to admit this to her friends. Although she finally stands up for her teacher, an accident happens, and the classroom is ruined beyond repair. Maleeka takes the fall for this and does not rat out her friends. Her mother is understanding and loving, but makes Maleeka suffer the consequences of working to pay the school back. It is not until Maleeka has a meaningful conversation with Miss Saunders that the truth emerges. Her relationship with her teacher helps Maleeka learn to think more highly of herself, stand up for herself and for others, and to embrace her ability to write. Maleeka is cornered by a group of boys who try to kiss her and she fights her way out. In the end, Maleeka ends up getting into a fight herself to help her own bully as he was getting beaten up. This book's lesson about liking the things that set us apart from others is one that all children and adults can benefit from.
 

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Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman


 

The Story

Tennyson can't believe that his twin sister Bronte (children of college lit professors!) is dating "the Bruiser," who is the guy voted "Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty." He's a loner and a guy everyone hears crazy rumors about. What gives? Bronte can't believe Tennyson is being such a jerk and a bully to Brewster. There happens to be a reason he can't get too close to people. When he does, impossible things start to happen, and Bronte should know they're starting to happen to her.

The Scoop

This fast-paced book from an award-winning author is told from four different points of view: Bronte's, Tennyson's, Bruiser/Brewster's and Brewster's little brother Cole's. It is an age-appropriate story for teens with a fascinating premise about the ultimate form of empathy. Brewster literally takes on the physical and emotional pain of those he cares about, and he and Cole live with an abusive, alcoholic uncle who takes advantage of that fact. There are descriptions of a couple of violent encounters between teenagers, and between Uncle Hoyt and his nephews. Bronte and Tennyson's family is going through the aftermath of infidelity, and there are plenty of opportunities for Brewster to absorb their pain -- but does this ultimately help or hurt? There could be interesting discussion about how one behaves differently when there are no physical or emotional consequences.
 

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