James Preller on Bystander

Bystander Once again I revert to my book blogger days so I can talk about James Preller’s Bystander, published this year by Feiwel and Friends.

Google alerted me to Jim Preller’s work when somebody mentioned Mudville on his blog. I started following along, especially after I read his beautiful baseball novel Six Innings. And what do you know, he also wrote a kids baseball book that gets its name from “Casey at the Bat.” He’s also the author of a popular series of mysteries about a kid named Jigsaw Jones.

I’ve found Preller (or Jimmy, as he calls himself on his blog) to have similar (excellent) taste in music and movies. He also has interesting things to say about his books and their origins and the writing process. I was reading about Bystander on his blog before it was released, and was intrigued by the subject and by the level of research he was doing on this book.

So I picked it up when it was released… and now without rehashing the entire plot and spoiling it for everyone, Bystander is about bullying, but is more nuanced and sophisticated than you might think from that description. The main characters are Eric, who’s the new kid in town; Griffin, a popular kid with rather flexible morals; and David, who tries to transform himself from a victim into a bully, or at least a respected sidekick. What impressed me about this book was the realism and depth in the way their power struggles play out. It’s easy for an author to add a bully to a book, an oversized kid who uses his fists instead of his wits, and another to re-create the whole shifting wolfpack hierarchy of middle school, and the alpha wolf who runs at the center. For me that character makes the book. School bullies are a staple of middle grade fiction, but are not often as studied and developed as Griffin is in this book. I asked Jimmy if he’d answer a few questions about Bystander, and he did.

Kurtis: You wrote on your blog that “[your] sense of bullies is that they are cunning, predatory, keen and careful in the targets they select.” What led to those decisions, and the development of Griffin as a character in the book?

Jimmy: For starters, you’ve got to throw out the old one-dimensional stereotypes, which do no one any good. Research shows that bullies are often popular in school. They have charisma, verbal wit, leadership. In talks I’ve had with teachers, that was a common thread, actually: the sense of waste they felt, their disappointment in the bully, because he or she had so many good things to offer. Anyway, bullies aren’t dummies, so they pick on the weakest gazelle in the herd. Someone with vulnerability, who lacks support. And often, yes, the target is generally disliked by others. That’s one of the dirty secrets of the Bystander Effect. Some people are standing around thinking, “Hey, he deserves it.” The popular, likeable bully is more common — and far more complex a character. One last comment on this: I’ve talked to many men about their memories about those schoolyard days. Many have regrets, things they wish they hadn’t done. But these people who once acted as so-called “bullies” did not grow up to become evil men. These are good guys, lawyers, Little League coaches, firemen, teachers, caring husbands, loving fathers. They are you and they are me (though, honestly, I don’t think I was a bully – more of a bystander). So that label, “the bully,” is far too simplistic. People are complex creatures. We wear many hats over the course of a given afternoon.

Kurtis: yeah, that’s what I think and it’s what I thought Bystander showed well, especially in the character of David who really does play all three parts.

What do you think the future holds for a kid like Griffin? Do you think his type is hard-wired, or is there hope? What would you tell kids like that, if you could?

Jimmy: When you write a book, you make thousands of choices along the way. By that I mean, Griffin represents Griffin: he can’t possibly stand in as an archetype for “BULLY.” Griffin Connelly is a dark, troubled character. In his case, I believe he’s going to spend some time in jail someday. He’s got some huge problems at home, only hinted in the book. He’s already started to steal things. He’s on the wrong path. Is there hope for him? Absolutely. Griffin is intelligent, talented, astute, charming. When you look at people with sociopathic tendencies, like Griffin, the glaring lack is empathy. It’s what we constantly try to teach our own children: caring about others, compassion, understanding. How do you achieve that? And is it possible for everyone? I don’t know those answers.

Here’s one thing, though: My fifth-grade son just went on Nature’s Classroom, where the entire grade goes to an overnight camp for a week. The most popular activity that they all told me about with great enthusiasm was when they learned about The Underground Railroad. They became the slaves, traveling the dark pathways. Sure, it was fun, and cool to walk around at night. But I think it gave them some scrap of understanding for what it might have felt like to be hunted, to be powerless, to be dependent upon the kindness of others. Effective teaching, I think.

Kurtis: I should probably ask a question about Eric, since he’s the main character. What do you want potential readers to know about him? Why did you choose Eric as the main character over Griffin or David?

Jimmy: I wanted Eric to represent a fairly average kid. Most readers should be able to identify with him. He’s new to the area, his antenna is up, and his viewpoint is fairly objective. For most scenes, I made a point of not going deep inside Eric’s head. I wanted his eyes, his ears, his reportage. Eric begins the book as a bystander—first sentence, he’s a witness—and to me, that’s where there’s the most hope. Look at the word “responsibility.” It means, literally, the ability to respond. I don’t believe the targets of bullies have the power to solve the larger problems. But the bystanders, who represent the overwhelming majority, can make a difference – if they have the tools and vocabulary to recognize what’s going on, and the support to act.

Kurtis: there was a story in the Minneapolis paper recently about a guy who stepped into a fight between teens. He was told to go away, that it was “none of his business.” “It is my business!” he said. There was a lot of people on Facebook and Twitter quoting that. He was the hero of the hour, for saying those words. More people need to realize that: if it’s going on in their neighborhood, or in their school, it is their business.

There’s a subplot about “cyberbullying” that could probably have been a book on its own. How did this become a part of the story? What would you say is distinct about this form of bullying from regular physical/verbal bullying, and what’s similar? Is it a topic you’d come back to?

Jimmy: Again, I could write a hundred different books on this topic. I chose to concentrate more heavily on boys than girls. But most teachers will say, “the girls are much worse.” Cyberbullying is a big problem, and difficult to address in a school setting, since so much takes place off school grounds. A gross generalization, but here goes: Boys tend to be more physical, more direct, like a punch in the nose. With girls it’s more like death by a thousand cuts, peer shunning, petty insults, etc. The danger of cyberbullying is in what we were talking about before – the central importance of empathy. The more we are detached from the consequences of our actions, the crueler we become. We’re talking, I guess, about the perils of abstraction. The difference between pushing a button to drop bomb 500 miles away, or driving a knife into someone’s chest. It’s a lot easier to push the button because there’s more distance between cause and effect.

Kurtis: I think I find it interesting because of that distance and because kids that normally would never confront someone—kids who are even targets of bulllying—might use the Internet as a way to fight back. It’s anonymous and you don’t have to have big muscles or even be popular to do it. So I think there’s likely to be a lot of headaches for parents and teachers.

Follow up question: does a one star review on Goodreads count as cyberbullying? If so, I’m a victim. 😉

You mention some nonfiction that informed Bystander, and some real-life influences. What about other novels? Any that you recommend, or thought about while you were working on Bystander? I’ll include a couple recommendations, too… of course everybody knows about The Lord of the Flies, but a similar book that completely haunted me as a kid is The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler. It’s not really a kids book, but I read it as a kid. One of the characters, Frank, is magnetic and manipulative like Griffin. And if anyone can stomach another vampire story these days, I’m currently reading Let the Right One In. Also not a kids book, but I’ve never read a more harrowing depiction at bullying and its consequences on the victim.

Jimmy: I’m not the most well-read guy when it comes to children’s literature. But I strongly disliked many of the books I read on the topic, with easy advice to complex questions, pat answers, tidy resolutions. Even with Bystander, I’ve heard from a couple of people who wanted a more tidy resolution, an ending wrapped in a bow. And there was no way in the world I was going to do that. I’m writing realistic fiction here, not fantasy. So my impulse to write was in reaction against much of what I read. At the same time: I’m sure there are other good, realistic books out there. Look, my role in this was as a writer, not a sociologist. And I was writing a work of fiction, not a research paper. I looked for material that would feed me, inform and inspire me. When I read fiction by other writers on the same topic, it tends to paralyze me. If I’m writing a book about a class clown, I’ll stay far away from books with similar characters – that only gets in my way. I’m not explaining that well, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

Kurtis: I used to have a books blog, and always wrapped up interviews with this question: What’s the pet situation in your home?

Jimmy: Two black cats, one dog. Maggie, our youngest, age 8, basically drives the pet situation. She’s constantly falling in love with some new sort of animal, lobbying hard that we adopt a guinea pig, a rabbit, a Chinese water dragon, whatever. It could be anything. Everyday there’s a new infatuation. I’m going to wake up one day to find a hippo wading in my swimming pool – because Maggie asked so nicely.

Kurtis: I have a wife like that. The family is five cats large and growing, and when she does her volunteer work at the shelter I always expect her to come home with a dachshund or an otter or something.

Jimmy: Quick Maggie story: She’s two years old and says, “I want milk!” I reply with something like: “Now Maggie, that’s not a nice way to ask. You didn’t say the magic word.” So Maggie pauses a beat and says, “I want milk . . . NOW!” True story.

Kurtis: Sounds like my kind of kid. One of my literary heroes is Veruca Salt.

James: Thanks for inviting me to your place, Kurtis, pretty swank – though I could do without the fluffy pillows and incense.

Kurtis: Yeah, I might have to hire a new decorator. I shouldn’t have hired one who specializes in yoga studios. Anyway, thanks for your time.

Find out more about Jimmy and his books.

One thought on “James Preller on Bystander

  1. Kurtis, looks great, thanks for your interest in my book. I appreciate having the opportunity to talk about these issues. I’ll have to check it our around here more often.

    One thing, about the character David. Research shows that the dynamic of victim/bully is very common. That is, very often a victim will turn around to bully someone else. Which is at first counter-intuitive. We’d like to think that a victim would be more sensitized, more compassionate. But when you think about it in terms of control, it’s easier to understand.

    A kid gets bullied at school, goes home and picks on a smaller kid down the block. Finally, he’s the master of events, pulling the strings. The boy who is bullied by his father becomes a bully at school. What else are you going to do with all that anger, that rage? I tried to show that with David.

    Of course, this strikes at the heart of the problem, the endless, vicious loop of bullying that’s so hard to break.


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