By Susan Flynn
In writing novels for young adults, Megan Kelley Hall exaggerated the qualities of the mean girls in the story to invent the cruelest characters she could imagine. It was a work of fiction, she thought.
Then a few years later she read stories about Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley teen from Ireland who took her life after being subjected to relentless harassment at her high school, a case that brought international attention to the problem of bullying in the United States. It was as if one of her mean girl characters had come to life.
“I was really angry and I decided to channel my anger into something positive,” says Kelley Hall, a Swampscott resident and author of two books for teens.
She created the “Young Adult Authors Against Bullying” Facebook page, and within days there were 500 members. The cause struck a nerve, and an idea. Along with co-editor Carrie Jones, they asked fellow authors to share their experiences with bullying – either as the victim, the aggressor, or as the person who stood silent on the sidelines.
The 70 final submissions were compiled into the new book, Dear Bully (HarperCollins; 2011), a moving collection of essays by some of the most well-known names in young adult fiction. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to the nonprofit Stomp Out Bullying.
We recently caught up with Kelley Hall, the mother of a 9-year-old girl, to talk about the book, and the message of hope she hopes it delivers to the children who are suffering from bullying and to the bystanders who have the power to make it stop.
1 Is it a coincidence so many young adult authors had these experiences with bullying?
I really believe a lot of these people found solace in books during these difficult times, and being an observer fed their creative outlet. R. L. Stine (author of the popular Goosebumps series) turned to horror writing and tried to scare his abusers; that was his escape. For a lot of the authors, I think writing stories for teens now is their way of controlling the world that they couldn’t control when they were living it.
2 Tell us how you are using the Dear Bully Facebook page to help teens?
We are trying to take Facebook back from the bullies. If someone comes across a bullying-type Facebook page, they go to Dear Bully and post a link to that page on our page. Then we try to get Facebook to remove it. As one person it’s hard to get Facebook’s attention. But if you get 1,500 people, then they will be more apt to listen. We have had success in taking some sites down. But the problem is, you take one site down and 10 others pop up.
3 What do you feel is the role of parents when it comes to bullying?
Parents need to be more aware of what’s going on with their kids and their friends. Sometimes parents will say, “My child doesn’t want me to get involved. It will make it worse.” I’m telling parents that deep down they want you to take a stand. Your child may get mad now but down the road they will know how much you went out on a limb for them.
4 Bullying has been around for a long time, but you say it’s always evolving. How?
Some teachers are saying the whole language is changing. Kids are using the term “drama” instead of bullying. You hear kids say, “I’m not going to be friends with that person anymore because there is so much drama.” No one wants to say they are being bullied because that comes off as weak. We have to keep on top of what they are saying. A lot of people think of the big bully on the playground, but bullying now usually happens within your circle of friends
5 Did any one essay in the book really stay with you?
“Kicking Stones at the Sun,” by Jo Knowles would be one. It was a very haunting and powerful essay about her brother. In her eyes he was this amazing caring boy whom she idolized. He was also gay and he was tormented not only by the kids but also by the teachers. During the school year, it was a living hell for him and for her, watching this happen. It made me cry reading it.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.