Bullying is a serious epidemic, now pervasive on and off the Internet. Bullying has a direct impact on young adults’ mental health and well-being, but there are strategies to help educate and empower young people to take charge. Anxiety In Teens is pleased to present an exclusive interview with Erin Frankel, M.A., a speaker and author of Weird! series, including books Dare! Tough!, and Nobody! to talk about bullying and how her book series addresses the issues.
AiT: What was it like writing your first book for the Weird Series?
EF: Weird! was the first book I wrote in the Weird series. I thought about all of the children who struggle with bullying. I thought of the children who were scared to go to school and who suffered silently. Having experienced and witnessed bullying in my own childhood, whenever I heard about someone being bullied, it triggered a lot of deep emotion in me. As a mother, I also experienced the pain that comes when your child is the target of bullying. After offering my daughters advice on what they could do in bullying situations, I realized that kids try a million things before turning to an adult for help. I could relate to the desperation that many children feel when nothing seems to work. There is a line in Weird! that sums up this feeling. Luisa, the main character, reflects on all that she has given up or changed in the hopes that the bullying will stop: It’s strange. I keep changing what I do, but she doesn’t change at all. She still says I’m Weird!. I wanted to write a story that would help children stay true to who they are. I shared my idea with life-long friend, Paula Heaphy, who is the illustrator of the Weird series. We decided to put all of our love and longing for a kinder world into our characters. Working on Weird! was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I felt that I was making a difference.
AiT: Why did you decide to write the books from different perspectives and how could that help a young person who is currently being bullied?
EF: I knew that Luisa didn’t get back to being herself by herself. I knew that any resolution to bullying had to be one that took into account the feelings of everyone involved. I went back to Luisa’s story and asked myself about the other characters. Why was the girl bullying Luisa in the first place, and why didn’t the bystanders help? The very act of going back and thinking about what my characters were feeling gave me a new understanding of the complexity of bullying. I thought about how powerful that act would be for readers. I knew that building empathy was essential to bullying prevention and thought that story was the perfect medium. When I talk to kids about bullying, I tell them that when we think about the characters – we are thinking about each other. Thinking about Luisa’s story from the perspective of the bystander and the child who is doing the bullying helps readers understand that every story is more than one story. As that understanding evolves, empathy grows.
AiT: What do you think prevents kids from being helpful bystanders?
EF: Fear. It isn’t easy to stand up against bullying. Many kids have had past experiences with bullying, like Jayla in Dare!, and they are afraid of being the target once again. I find that many kids don’t know how to stand up for someone who is being bullied in a way that feels safe for them. Bullying is complex and many kids feel that the easiest thing to do is to just stay out of it. But the reality is that bystanders hold the key to putting an end to bullying, and standing by silently takes an emotional toll on bystanders over time. When I was writing Dare!, from the bystander’s perspective, I had a famous quote by Seneca hanging over my computer: It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.
AiT: What else can readers hope to learn from reading your books?
EF: I hope readers can learn about the feelings of the child who is doing the bullying as well. I hope they can learn that we all need help with our feelings from time to time and that it is okay to ask for help. I hope they can learn that there are caring adults who are ready to listen and lend a hand. Most importantly, I hope that they learn that every day is a new opportunity to write a story that you can feel proud of. A child once told me: It is difficult being me. I hope that readers discover that they have the power to make it easy for someone to be who they are.
AiT: As a parent, what sort of similarities vs differences have you noticed when it comes to your experience growing up and your daughters today?
EF: I think there is much more discussion and awareness now when it comes to bullying and the impact that it has on everyone involved. At the same time, there are concerns today that didn’t exist when I was growing up, such as cyberbullying. I worry that with so much screen time, we are beginning to lose our ‘face’ time. So much of empathy building revolves around observations of facial expressions and feelings. We need to look at each other and wonder what others are feeling, and we lose this connection when our heads are buried in our devices. This is why I believe that picture books are such a powerful and important tool for bullying prevention. Anyone who has ever been involved in bullying has experienced similar feelings of anxiety, despair, sadness, frustration and anger. I believe that this was true when I was growing up and continues to be the case now. But I am hopeful today as young people share their stories with me. I am inspired by stories of people reaching out in kindness and friendship to help those who are struggling understand that they are not alone.
Bio: Erin Frankel has an M.A. in English education and is passionate about teaching and writing. She is a speaker and author of Weird! Dare! Tough!, and Nobody!, true-to-