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Jake Burt: Bullies and Bystanders

Hi! I’m Jake Burt, author of Greetings from Witness Protection!, The Right Hook of Devin Velma, and this fall’s The Tornado. I’m also a fifth grade teacher. You’d think, given that I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life in an elementary school classroom, I’d have fond memories of my own fifth grade year. Or, at least, some memories of my fifth grade year.

But I don’t. I can’t remember my teachers’ names, I don’t remember if we went on any field trips, and I can’t recall a single book we read that year. I mean, I’m sure I had teachers, and field trips, and I’m almost certain we read books. I just can’t remember them.

But I remember being bullied. If you were, too, then you probably know what I’m talking about - the way that eagerness warps into anxiety, activity into avoidance, and self-worth into self-loathing. I don’t remember a single day of sixth grade math, but I recall with crystal clarity the sound of rocks hitting the window panes of our house, the deep breath I took before going outside to stop him before he broke something, and the color of the plastic coating around the bike chain lock that he whipped me with when I confronted him. It was green.

It’s taken me thirty years and three books to drum up the courage to write Bell Kirby’s story in The Tornado, because in many ways, it’s mine, too. Just like I did, Bell deals with a persistent, violent bully. And just like I did, he’s already tried all the techniques everyone recommends. None of them worked. So he creates his own system, one that at least lets him survive. He still suffers the anxiety, doubt, restlessness, distrust, and reluctance that so frequently manifest as symptoms of bullying - symptoms I’m constantly on the lookout for among my students. But for Bell, those have become his routine, and because he has the support of loving parents and a small but tight circle of friends, he’s able to adapt. In doing so, however, a new problem presents itself: the quandary of the bystander.

At this point, I’d like to make an admission: when I faced this challenge as a child, I failed to overcome it. Clinically, psychologically, and empathetically, some might disagree that my response to my situation and its stressors was not a failure, and I appreciate that take.

I still feel like I failed.

When my bully grew tired of harassing me, he targeted other students. I saw him doing it. I saw them suffering as a result. I said nothing. In fact, I enabled it, because I was desperately eager for the crumbs of friendship my bully occasionally tossed my way; I was constantly off-balance as to where our relationship stood. A mere year after he baited me out of my house with those rocks, I kick-standed my bike right alongside his and watched as he pelted another boy’s windows with stones. I didn’t stop him. I didn’t tell anyone.

God, I may have even laughed.

"Just like I did, Bell deals with a persistent, violent bully. And just like I did, he’s already tried all the techniques everyone recommends. None of them worked."

Three decades later, it still weighs on me, and I’m happy for that burden. I’d like to think it makes me more aware of the complexities of bullying situations among my students (though, like everyone, I’m certain I have much to learn, particularly as bullying continues to migrate to new frontiers, both physical and virtual). It also helped me confront those issues in The Tornado and bring them as close to the truth as I possibly could. That was my goal, ultimately: to show readers a truth, allow them to compare it to their own, and glean whatever hope, solutions, or insight they may from Bell’s story.

Or, if you prefer, from mine.

About The Tornado

Bell Kirby is an expert at systems, whether he’s designing the world’s most elaborate habitat for his pet chinchilla, re-creating Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest inventions in his garage, or avoiding Parker Hellickson, the most diabolical bully Village Green Elementary has ever seen.

Since third grade, Parker has tormented Bell, who’s spent two long years devising a finely tuned system that keeps him out of Parker’s way. Sure, it means that Bell can’t get a drink when he wants to, can’t play with his best friend on the playground, and can’t tell his parents about his day, but at least he’s safe.

Until Daelynn Gower touches down in his classroom like a tornado.

Bell’s not sure why the new girl, with her rainbow hair, wild clothes, and strange habits, is drawn to him, but he knows one thing--she means trouble. It’s bad enough that she disrupts Bell’s secret system, but when Daelynn becomes the bully’s new target, Bell is forced to make an impossible decision: Finally stand up to Parker. . .

Or join him.

Jake Burt has generously agreed to give away three advanced review copies of THE TORNADO. For a chance to win, please do two things:
1) Leave a comment below. We'd like to know... What have your experiences been with bullying - as a child, a parent, an educator?
2) Then hop on over to our Twitter account and follow both @AuthorJBurt and @novelmindkidlit. Good luck!

Jake Burt has been a teacher for the past twenty years and an author of middle grade literature for about half that. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and daughter.

You can find him on Twitter - @jburtbooks, Facebook, or his website:

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