The recently released video of middle schoolers tormenting a 68-year-old bus monitor in Greece, NY, near Rochester, has prompted national outrage aimed at the young bullies. Last week in a post titled “Where Have All the Manners Gone,” my sister (Albany) Times-Union blogger Valerie DeLaCruz, aka Boomergirl, called on parents to teach the values of respect and self-discipline to their children. The post has received dozens of comments, most of them in support of DeLaCruz. National fundraising has netted enough money for the bullied monitor, Karen Klein, to retire. On a less pleasant note, the bullies and their families have received more than a thousand death threats.
Parents taking control of a bullying situation, albeit perhaps too late, serves as the inciting incident of Holly Thompson’s 2011 middle grade novel-in-verse, Orchards (Penguin). While one can find novels for young readers that portray victims of bullying, very few assume the point of view of the bully. Readers usually seek out protagonists who are likable and sympathetic, and bullies rarely elicit much sympathy. Thirteen-year-old Kana Goldberg isn’t especially sympathetic at the start of Orchards. The half-Jewish, half-Japanese eighth grader is one of a group of “mean girls” whose ostracism of Kana’s former friend Ruth led to Ruth’s suicide several months before the story begins. After the suicide, all of the mean girls’ parents send them away, scattering them “like beads / from a necklace / snapped.” Kana’s Japanese mother sends her to Japan — as she tells Kana, so “you can reflect / in the presence of your ancestors.” For Kana, that means she must move to a rural village and work long, hot hours in her relatives’ orchard. For several weeks until the end of the school year there, she attends a Japanese school where she hardly knows the language and the other kids ignore her. They consider her as invisible as she and her friends considered Ruth, thus giving Kana a taste of her own medicine. Throughout her time in Japan, Kana hears the admonishments of her relatives, who know that she did something wrong that brought shame to her and to her family. Not all of Kana’s friends survive the tough love approach, but Kana does learn to accept responsibility and repent. Through the Japanese traditions in which she is invited to take part, she finds solace and an understanding of what it means to belong in ways that do not exclude or hurt.
Orchards is a powerful novel that explores the consequences of being a bully. Not all bullies experience remorse for their actions, but this is one of those stories that might make the follower of a bully think about the effects her actions have on others, and what they say about her as well.