8 books about being bullied that can teach us important life lessons
On rising from the ashes of adversity
Whatever your issues with JK Rowling and her personal views may be, her books provided a beautiful escape from reality for kids around the world trying to run from their own dementors. There aren’t enough fingers to count the number of times we wanted to throw an invisibility cloak around ourselves and hide. From all the books about being bullied, the Harry Potter series holds so many lessons from varied perspectives.
It showed us that bullies can be in your own family, like the horrid Dursleys. The boy wizard holed up in a cupboard under the stairs told us that it was hard but it’s ok to be different, and that ultimately you will find your place in the world.
We had misfit Neville Longbottom being tormented in school, and yet by the end, showing us bravery like no one else. We also saw a more humane side to notorious school bully Draco Malfoy, revealing how complicated family dynamics, and bullying of another kind (by his father, and Lord Voldemort) shaped him and his choices.
Through the characters we learn about empathy, friendship and kindness in different forms. We connected with them deeply, being reminded of our own mistreatment, trials, humiliations and more. That’s the power that writing has and why we hold onto books that irrevocably changed us.
We turn to comforting kid’s books when we’re feeling lost as adults, look to novels featuring strong female leads when we need a little inspiration, and feel-good tomes when we’re feeling down.
Now we turned our attention to some of the most special stories about being bullied — books that we still turn to for solace when everything else in life feels a bit dark, to teach us how we can rise above our circumstances and hold on to optimism regardless of the people that prey on you, and how bullying can push people to become the worst versions of themselves.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
We all know how terrifying the first day of school can be. And for our story’s young protagonist August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, it’s scarier — he’s headed to public school after years of being homeschooled.
He’s starting from scratch. Navigating social rules, making friends, talking to teachers who aren’t his parents and staying up to date with what’s happening. He also has a medical condition that led to severe facial deformities — making fitting in more difficult.
Written by Raquel Jaramillo, under the name RJ Palacio, the book is told from the perspectives of Auggie, his friends, parents, sister and her boyfriend.
Even with Auggie’s new challenges, humiliation by peers and even adults because of his appearance, this book isn’t the sad tale — it teaches you about hope and facing adversity. It makes you introspect on your life and the moments of kindness we may have missed out on.
Despite his circumstances, Auggie continues to be a wonderful and caring person, sometimes to the surprise of those around him.
Leaving us with a lasting lesson — never let the darkness of the world dim your light.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Young bookworm Matilda is intelligent and speaks her mind at home, where she’s pretty much raising herself — surrounded by the bullies she calls family.
She’s neglected by her two scheming parents and troubled by her slightly dense older brother. She’s constantly belittled and bullied by her father who dismisses her intelligence, seeing her desire to read and learn as a threat.
At school, she faces one of literature’s greatest villains, headmistress Miss Trunchbull — who psychologically bullies her niece, and Matilda’s new favourite teacher, sweet and caring Miss Honey.
In a way, this book shows us how bullies find their targets. It’s the people they perceive as more physically and emotionally vulnerable than they are so they can overpower them. Even though Miss Honey is an adult, the principal sees her timid nature and kindness as weakness and keeps pushing her into corners.
Matilda uses her intellect and new telekinetic powers to right the wrongs and protect herself and people she cares for, outsmarting the bullies in her life and coming out on top.
Carrie by Stephen King
Stephen King’s novels have often touched upon bullying in the narrative of the protagonists. But his books offer a grim outlook at what can happen when the bullied reach the final straw. He is a horror writer after all.
Our story’s protagonist, Carrie, is a 17 year old who develops telekinesis. She’s bullied by classmates at school and abused by her very religious mother at home. The only release she gets is from physical outbursts caused by her new powers.
King’s horror unfolds as Carrie’s torment grows and our victim finally snaps. The Black Prom — where Carrie’s bullies dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her has become a kind of pop-cultural institution of sorts. Here, her suffering turns into rage at her classmates and she gets her violent revenge.
Her story is filled with darkness, violence and a harsh lesson — monstrous behaviour can push otherwise gentle people into becoming monsters themselves.
So Now You Know: A Memoir of Growing Up Gay in India by Vivek Tejuja
There are several poignant moments in Vivek Tejuja’s memoir of growing up gay in the ’90s. Some tug at your heartstrings, others make you chuckle and nod along.
Like his obsession with Srivedi as a kid. One time his sister walked in on him dancing to one of her songs. “Dancing like a girl” he writes. Instead of teasing him, she joins in and they dance together.
Another moment is when Tejuja talks about the time his best friend in school turned against him for being gay. His closest ally joins in on the daily bullying and humiliation Tejuja faced for his sexual orientation.
This coming of age story starts when Tejuja is 8 years old, growing up in an affluent big-fat Sindhi family of aunts, uncles, cousins and more in Mumbai.
You’d think the constant belittling at home, bullying in school and struggle to find love and acceptance would embitter Tejuja, but he’s far from a hardened man. There’s an optimism and tenderness to his words that come through to the reader, an inspiration for others that are perhaps struggling with similar circumstances.
The conversational tone draws you in and makes you question, as Tejuja does in this book, why we treat people who we see as different the way that we do.
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty may be a young adult novel but it along with bullying, it deals with even darker issues like domestic abuse, incarceration and death.
We have two seemingly opposite victims of bullying here, both who stand out for being different from the rest of the crowd.
Maxwell Kane, through whose eyes we read this story, lives with his grandparents and suffers from low self-esteem. People are scared of him because of his father’s incarceration and his own reputation of being a tough guy. But Max sees himself as nothing more than a giant, unintelligent fool. His new neighbour is Kevin, a sickly boy with leg braces and crutches who gets bullied for his physical disabilities and short stature. They call him ‘Freak’.
The two form an unlikely friendship. With Kevin sitting on Max’s shoulders, together they become the dynamic Freak the Mighty and set off on adventures together.
Through their bond, the two friends learn something new about themselves.
Max recognises that he is intelligent in his own way and has so much kindness to share. Kevin may be clever but Max shows him that he can still stand tall in his bravery. Real friendship is one where you hoist each other up and hold your arms open in case the other falls.
Blubber by Judy Blume
If you’ve ever wondered what drives a bully, Blubber could give you the answer.
The narrator here is Jill Brenner, a fifth grader who joins her peers in bulling a classmate Linda who they think is overweight.
Jill only realises the error of her bullying ways when the tables turn and she finds herself in Queen Bee Wendy’s line of fire.
But don’t expect any resolution or grand personality changes for our protagonist either.
Blubber is a painfully realistic portrayal of mean girls and bullying told from the perspective of the tormentor. Our protagonist’s point? Rather be part of the wolf pack than the sheep that gets eaten.
This book can be a painful read for people who have been bullied for their appearance themselves. None of the characters show much positive growth, but isn’t that closer to reality than a neatly tied up narrative?
It makes you angry that our protagonist doesn’t do more to stop the horrid bullying of a classmate.
Perhaps that’s what Blume intends. Jill didn’t, so maybe we could take that action in real life instead.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
In Cat’s Eye, Atwood shows us the long-term impact bullying can have on a person’s life.
The story is about Elaine Risley, a painter who returns to the city she grew up in for an exhibition of her artworks. She starts to reminisce about her past, childhood and the darkness that it was made of.
Largely told through flashbacks, this story focuses on the three girls she befriends in middle school, namely Cordelia, who keeps pushing her towards the edge.
Under the guise of friendship, Elaine faces daily taunting, picking at her self-esteem and belittling. It’s more of an abusive relationship than a friendship that almost leads Elaine to her death. That’s what finally makes her break things off.
Tables slightly turn once they all enter high school and a friendship between her and Cordelia is rekindled. However, Elaine holds the power now and a troubled Cordelia faces the taunts.
Atwood puts to paper an incredibly nuanced female relationship. What’s laid bare for us to introspect over are the scars we bare and the fears we still hold onto from our childhood – many of which have made us who we are today and we will carry through our lives.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Trigger warning: sexual assault
Speak is not an easy book to read. Melinda, our protagonist, is starting high school and right from the beginning, her friends turn on her and every one hates her.
There was a party before school started, where people were arrested for underage drinking and Melinda was the one who called the police to break it up. Everyone knows she made the call.
But no one knows what happened that night, that pushed Melinda to make the call. What triggered her to become an outcast, completely isolated from what’s happening around her at school and bullied by her peers?
She’s so isolated that ultimately she stops speaking. Art class is her only solace and it is there that she explores what happened that night. She had been sexually assaulted and didn’t know how to come to terms with what had been done to her.
Speak is a powerful story that should make you uneasy because of just how common it could be. It’s incredibly hard to do but Melinda uses her voice and shares her trauma.
Even if the social hierarchy and order of high school tried to drown it out, her experience and story mattered and deserved to be heard.