Posts tagged bullying

Tangerine: A phenomenal book about finding the courage to stand up for yourself.

Tangerine

Young Adult

Ages 11 and up

By Edward Bloor

320 pages

Harcourt

1997

 

Though I’m not a real-life sports follower, I love a good sports novel. The world and culture of sports provide fertile ground for rich storytelling. Tangerine, an outstanding piece of fiction, is one of my favorites. Edward Bloor’s writing is full and lively, and the narrator’s voice is authentic. Readers quickly come to understand the characters but may never stop questioning their behaviors—behaviors that may be familiar, yet foreign.

The story unfolds via Paul Fisher’s journal entries. He and his family have just relocated from Texas to Tangerine, Florida. (Though there actually is a Tangerine, Florida, the city in the novel is fictitious.) Paul is about to start seventh grade at Lake Windsor Middle School. A star goalie at his last school, he’s hoping to make the soccer team here. He’s also legally blind, though he is able to see just fine with his (extremely thick) glasses. His older brother Erik tells people that Paul looked directly at a solar eclipse when he was five. Paul cannot remember the event but in the family photos prior to that summer, he’s never wearing glasses.

Erik is a star football player and soon to be senior at Lake Windsor High. He treats his brother with disdain, takes pleasure in destruction, and has a clear and present violent streak. Their father seems only to focus on Erik’s sports ability and the “Erik Fisher Football Dream.” He pays far less attention to Paul’s playing, despite the fact that Paul is quite good.

Paul lives in fear of Erik and has for as long as he can remember, but his parents seem to disregard Erik’s vicious bullying behaviors. In addition to placing a huge strain on the family, the recent move has also been triggering memories for Paul—memories of something that’s been hidden from him since the summer of the eclipse.

Tangerine is a peculiar place. Among other oddities, like a perpetually burning muck fire at the edge of the Fisher’s brand new housing development, it’s also the lightning strike capital of the U.S. Every single day at roughly the same time, a powerful storm passes over the area bringing rain and lightning.

Because of these storms, Paul’s school year begins rife with tragedies. Mike Costello, another senior and star football player at Lake Windsor High, is fatally struck by lightning. One moment he was standing with his hand on the goal post, in the next he was lying dead on the ground. Mike was the older brother of Paul’s friend, Joey, as well as Erik’s teammate. There’s an unsettling scene at the Fisher house where Erik openly mocks Joey for his reaction to his brother’s death. This is our first real glimpse into Erik’s sociopathic behaviors.

During another daily storm, a massive sinkhole opens up near Paul’s school and swallows several of the classrooms. No one is seriously hurt but it will be months before the school can be fully repaired. When students are given the option of transferring to Tangerine Middle School, Paul happily accepts. After being placed on the soccer team at Lake Windsor, Paul was informed that he was not eligible because of an IEP his mother had filed with the school. His mother agrees not to inform the new school of his visual impairment, giving Paul a second chance at playing soccer this season.

Transferring schools gives Paul a look into the other side of Tangerine, literally and figuratively. Lake Windsor High is comprised mostly of students from white, affluent families who are new to the area. The majority of Tangerine’s students are minorities, and many of them come from families who have been involved in the citrus industry for generations. While Tangerine has some star players of its own, the sports program at Lake Windsor High is much more highly regarded, so some of the more gifted athletes use fake addresses so that they may play for Lake Windsor instead.

This is a recurring theme in the sports genre, as well as a reality of life. One school has the better sports program and is more highly visible, so students from a more impoverished area use a fake address in the better district to play sports there. This is sometimes done with the school and the coach fully aware, or even facilitating, the process. The student, ideally, gets a better education and the school gets a talented athlete. But these arrangements also put everyone at great risk. Players can be expelled, maybe lose scholarships; schools can be fined and have wins revoked.

Tangerine Middle School has a much rougher reputation than Lake Windsor. Paul is nervous in the new surroundings, but handles himself well. After all, he’s had years of practice making himself invisible to bullies. He joins the soccer team as a back-up player and falls in quickly with his fellow teammates. He’s making friends and likes spending time with the Cruz family. Tino Cruz is one of the star players and his sister Theresa is the first person Paul met at his new school. Their older brother Luis operates their family’s citrus groves.

Paul invites Tino, Theresa and some other students to his home to work on a science project. When Erik and Arthur (his side-kick and partner in crime, literally) arrive they immediately begin taunting Paul’s friends. Paul tries to brush it off but Tino won’t have it; he stands up to Erik and defends himself. Then Erik strikes him—hard and in the face. Paul’s friends immediately pack up and leave. Paul is heartbroken and angry. And, for the first time in his life, he begins to realize he must stand up to Erik.

Luis Cruz pays a visit to Lake Windsor High to confront Erik about the incident at the Fisher house. Luis approaches Erik and his friends, but before a conversation can begin, Arthur (doing Erik’s bidding) strikes him in the head with a metal club. Unbeknownst to those involved, Paul witnesses the encounter. As events unfold it becomes clear that Erik’s behaviors, having gone unchecked, have become increasingly dangerous. That blow to Luis’s head turns out to be fatal; Luis dies days later from a blood clot. Paul can no longer remain silent. He must confront his parents about Erik’s behaviors and he also must share what he’s witnessed with the authorities.

Occasionally, after reading a book I’ve thought, “This is a great book, but the story/circumstances/characters are unlikely. Things like this rarely ever happen.” Then I remember that’s part of the reason that we read. Maybe readers don’t directly know anybody who has dealt with such circumstances, but such things do exist. Reading helps us understand that, and it allows us to explore possibilities and learn from things without having to directly experience them.

Bullies are everywhere; children may face them in school, adults may face them at work. Finding courage and standing up for what’s right is the best way to overcome a bully. We cannot change the actions of others, but we can control how we react to those actions.

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The Hundred Dresses is a powerful book to read and share.

The Hundred Dresses

 

Middle Reader

Ages 5-12

By Eleanor Estes

Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

96 pages

Harcourt

1944

1945 Newberry Honor Winner

 

Eleanor Estes (1906-1988) was awarded the Newberry medal for Ginger Pie. Three of her other nineteen books—The Middle Moffat, Rufus M, and The Hundred Dresses—won Newberry Honors.

The Hundred Dresses has never been out of print. And don’t think that silver sticker has anything to do with it—no medal can save a book from going out of print. This book strikes a chord with children. Perhaps it was Estes’s background as a teacher and librarian that afforded her that ability. Besides being a story about the timeless topics of acceptance and kindness, it’s one that nearly everyone can relate to.

Estes’s writing is absolutely lovely. She’s created sympathetic characters, a familiar setting and uses clear language.

Louis Slobodkin (1903-1975) illustrated nearly ninety books. In 1944, he was awarded the Caledecott Medal for Many Moons, written by James Thurber (1894-1961). His art in The Hundred Dresses switches between black and white and color. His lines and colors are sparse giving you enough information, but allowing space and light to filter though.

This book is a wonderful read-aloud for younger children—at just ninety-six pages and widely illustrated—and something the whole family can share. This story provides such a fantastic opportunity for discussion that when giving this book to a child to read alone, I feel strongly that adults should read it first.

Peggy and Maddie are the first to notice Wanda Petronski’s absence because she’d made them late for school. They’d been waiting for her on their walk to “have fun with her.” They didn’t realize she’d already been absent for two days.

Wanda lived with her father and her brother Jake in Boggins Heights. As poor, Polish immigrants, the family was often teased for their “funny” name and obvious lack of means. Mostly, Wanda kept to herself. Mostly, the girls in class didn’t notice her: they noticed her outside of class, on the way to school, and in the yard during recess. All the girls talked to her, or at her, but Wanda didn’t have any friends.

It all started the day Cecile came to school in a brand new red dress, with socks and cap to match. It was a beautiful October day and all the girls had gathered around to admire and compliment her. Some discussed how they would be getting new dresses too, others talked about new dresses they already had at home. Everyone was in good spirits. Even Wanda, who rarely smiled, seemed happy; she whispered something to Peggy.

‘“What?” asked Peggy. For Wanda had spoken very softly. Wanda hesitated a moment and she repeated her words firmly. “I got a hundred dresses at home.”’

The girls had seen Wanda every day in the same faded, ill-fitting, blue dress. Surely a girl with a hundred dresses would not wear the same one every day! Thus began the laughing. And the teasing. From that point forward, Wanda faced daily taunts about her hundred dresses.

The students were abuzz over the drawing and coloring contest. The boys were to design motorboats, the girls designed dresses (remember, this was written in 1944). Peggy would probably win the girls medal since she drew better than anyone in the room.

Wanda was still absent the day of the contest. When the other children entered the classroom they were stunned. Drawings covered the walls, the blackboard, and the window ledges; one hundred different dresses, all drawn by Wanda Petronski, illuminated the room.

Wanda won the contest but she was not there to hear the applause; she was not there to receive the award. Miss Mason instructs the students to take their seats so she may read them a letter from Wanda’s father.

“Dear teacher: My Wanda will not come to your school anymore. Jake also. Now we move away to big city. No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city.”

The teacher, distressed by the letter, asks the children to think about the role they may have played in making Wanda, and the Petronski family, feel unwelcome and unaccepted.

Maddie takes this especially hard. She and Peggy go to the Petronski house hoping that perhaps the family has not yet left. Maybe they’ll see Wanda and tell her she won the contest! They want to tell her how beautiful her one hundred dresses are, and that they are sorry for their thoughtless behavior. Maddie vows to never stand by and allow another person to be teased again. Though she had never instigated the taunting, wasn’t she also to blame for not stopping it?

She and Peggy decide to write a letter to Wanda. They tell her about school, how much everyone liked her dresses and that she won the contest. They asked if she liked her new teacher, her new home, and they ended the letter with several X’s for love.

As Christmas approaches, the class receives a letter from Wanda. The children had mostly forgotten about her, including Peggy. Maddie, however, has been consoling herself to sleep each night by making speeches defending Wanda, putting a stop to the teasing.

Maddie cherishes her drawing. She takes it home, pins it to her bedroom wall and admires it. Tears in her eyes, feeling as though her behaviors may have been forgiven, she notices a resemblance in the drawing. The girl wearing the blue dress looks likes Maddie! When she rushes to Peggy’s house to tell her, the two girls notice that Peggy’s drawing looks like Peggy too.

The Hundred Dresses is powerful book to read and share. It’s always important to be kind, and sometimes necessary to remind children and adults how their words and actions can affect others. And while actions can never be reversed, it’s never too late to make a change.

 

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