As an empathic adult who was bullied as a child, bullying is always very painful for me to read about. But it happens all too frequently, and it is dishonest for adults to deny kids the opportunity to read about it because we wish it weren’t happening to them. Here are three 2021 Cybils nominees worth reading that look at bullying from a science fiction or fantasy standpoint.
by Mark Oshiro
Read from library copy.
Héctor Muñoz and his family have recently moved from San Francisco to the suburbs of Orangevale, California. He’s put together a fabulous outfit including lavender pants and bells on his bag for his first day of middle school – and is immediately targeted by bullies who make it clear that being gay is not acceptable in Orangevale. To make matters worse, the school security officer thinks that the bully, Mike, is a star student and insists that Héctor must be lying that he’s being chased. Héctor tries dressing in bland clothes and staying away from Mike, but nothing works. Finally, he takes to hiding in a janitor’s closet – the irony! Oddly, though, the closet moves around the school, always appearing when he needs it the most. Soon it’s not just a closet, but a room containing whatever he needs – a fluffy bed when he’s been too upset to sleep, chocolate cereal and his abuela’s delicious horchata when he’s missed breakfast. Then he finds other kids in the room – nonbinary Sal from Arizona whose classmates find this hard to accept, and Juliana from Georgia who’s been told she can’t take another girl to the middle school dance – both of whom need refuge as well. As they figure out how the magic of their own personal Room of Requirement works, they also make plans to stop their bullying. Although the bullying is painful, the room itself is a delight that helps take some of the weight off. Héctor’s parents and abuela are very supportive of him as well, even though it takes him a really long time to tell them what’s going on. I really enjoyed getting to know Héctor, and would happily read more stories from Mark Oshiro.
by Sheila M. Averbuch. Read by Katy Davis.
Listened to audiobook on Hoopla.
Roisin has recently moved from Ireland to the United States, and is finding middle school a nightmare. It starts with her clothes – used to school uniforms, she doesn’t have enough to wear a different outfit every day, and her classmate Zara latches onto this as a way to attack her, first in private messages on social media, then in public posts, escalating to threats of violence. Her mother is constantly in her AI lab and hasn’t had time to take Roisin shopping or pay attention to what’s going on. So when Roisin switches social media apps and finds a girl named Haley who’s always there to send her supportive messages, it feels like a lifeline. But when Haley starts making threats towards Zara and Zara really does get into an accident, Roisin starts to wonder if Haley really is who she says she is. This is billed as a thriller, and it does get there, but the first two-thirds at least is focused on the bullying and Roisin and Haley’s conversations about it. As usual for me, I found the bullying very hard to listen to – the audiobook was a double-edged sword here, as I felt even more painfully part of the story by listening to it, but I really appreciated narrator Katy Davis’s switching between Roisin’s Dublin Irish accent and the mostly American accents around her. As someone who has myself lived in different places, I also appreciated how Roisin got tripped up by cultural differences that hadn’t even been on her radar. Rather ironically, it was easier for me once it got to the thriller part, especially as Roisin has by then made some real-life friends. Many people, though, really love thrillers, so this book would probably work well for them. It closes with some resources and advice for kids being bullied, so that this could be a valuable resource for middle school kids who are either being bullied or have themselves turned to bullying, as it is so common for kids to be on either or both sides at this age.
The Nightmare Thief
by Nicole Lesperance
Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021
Read from library copy.
Maren Partridge lives in a cozy seaside town popular with tourists because of its magic. Her family is known for handcrafting dreams – something a little on the darker side than most of the magic, which tends towards things like edible fireworks, singing bubbles, and air that always smells like freshly-baked treats. Maren, though, is very distressed – her teenage sister Hallie is in a coma from which it’s increasingly uncertain she’ll awaken. Meanwhile, her grandmother’s shop is visited by a very suspect woman looking for very large quantities of unpleasant nightmares. And when Ms. Malo catches Maren illegally giving her sister a dream to try to help her remember herself, she’s got the perfect angle with which to blackmail Maren into making her nightmares. Here, the darkness of her sister’s condition and the horrible plans of the villain is balance by the fun fantasy setting, including a delightful parrot who spews hilarious insults in French but saves the day. Still, it looks at the repercussions of bullying, shows that it can be done to adults as well as children, and shows at least one method for breaking free from the cycle. It looks like there’s a sequel, The Dream Spies, due out next year.
What do you think – do the kids in your life like or avoid books about bullying?