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Storytime: A perfectly pitched bully story

 Llama llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney

Llama llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney

In the popular imagination, bullies tend to be larger than life: lunch-stealing, name-calling, black-eye-bestowing ruffians in need of their inevitable comeuppance. They’re villains, of course, and villains exist in fiction to needle our hero to a place of satisfying action, foil his plans and thus sharpen his skills and strengthen his resolve.

Leave it to everybody’s favorite llama to remind us that bullies are people too (well, actually in this case he’s a goat, but you get the idea). The newest book in the popular Llama Llama series by Anna Dewdney presents little ones with a properly nuanced conception of a term that seems to be on everybody’s lips of late.

Llama Llama and the Bully Goat takes us inside Llama’s preschool, where everything is going sing-songy perfect until a little boy named Gilroy starts taking out his frustrations on his classmates. Stealing toys, sniggering at the other kids, refusing to cooperate on the playground, he gets all the little cloven-hooved creatures in a tizzy until one of them finally decides he’s had enough and summons the other kids to confront Gilroy.

A lot of lessons are tucked inside this little picture book. For starters, Gilroy doesn’t look like a mean, nasty kid. Fed for so long on traditional storybook ideas of bullies, young kids often don’t know how to identify a bully. Dewdney, who will visit Gibson’s Bookstore next Saturday – apparently with a llama! – offers young audiences a more realistic version of the bullies they are likely to face.

Second, Gilroy’s behavior isn’t outlandishly awful. He woke up on the wrong side of the stable, for sure, but his misbehavior is pretty run-of-the-mill schoolyard stuff. And third, the other kids handle the bullying behavior just right, by telling the teacher and collectively standing up to their ill-tempered friend. It would have been cooler still to see a bystander put Gilroy in his place, as studies have shown the reaction of uninvolved peers is key to curbing bully behavior – but maybe that’s asking a lot of a barnyard animal.

Perhaps what’s best about this book, though, is how, ultimately, things go on as usual. The term bully is thrown around pretty liberally these days: In fact, you could argue that Gilroy is slapped with the label a little too readily. But is that such a problem if we, in turn, learn to deal with the behavior in an empowered, matter-of-fact way? Research shows that bullied kids are often bullies themselves, and vice versa, and most of us can think of incidents in our own childhoods where we behaved as bullies in the modern sense of the word. Bully is better understood as a noun than a verb: something we do, not someone we are. That’s not to say bullying should ever be taken lightly: Just that it comes in many varieties and degrees, and we’re better off trying to understand it than freak out about it.

By the end of Dewdney’s book, Gilroy is playing nicely with his peers and bidding them goodbye from his father’s arms. He’s just another kid – a kid with a family who loves him. He’s put the ugly episodes behind him and moved on. And no one seems to be holding his behavior against him. Let’s hope he remembers these interventions when he’s old enough for a Facebook account.

Always masterful at getting inside young minds, helping little ones and their parents understand their sometimes all-consuming emotions, the Vermont author gets something else right, too. Her verse is perfectly metered and neatly rhymed, free of the weird syntax some writers employ in the interest of rhyming. Linguistically, the books are just fun.

And of course, Dewdney’s illustrations never cease to delight. The expressions on her llamas faces are more human than human, and their awkward physiques add interest to otherwise ordinary scenes. Come to think of it, Dewdney would have had a hard time creating a mean, ugly, swaggering bully even if she’d wanted to. Llamas and their equally gangly, floppy-eared cohorts don’t exactly lend themselves to intimidation.

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