Committee for Children Blog

Book Review: Sticks and Stones

by Emily Bazelon
Reading Level: Adult

Over the last couple of decades, the issue of bullying has become a tangled ball of many threads, including history, culture, trend, media buzz, technology, semantics, tragedy, heroism, and even solutions. In Sticks and Stones, author Emily Bazelon assiduously picks apart that messy ball, unraveling knots and finding where some threads really do connect to others. In addressing the problem of bullying, she realizes it is necessary to delve much deeper than the media headlines that simplify the issue even while they sound the alarm. Sticks and Stones introduces the reader to three young people who were caught up in complex bullying situations that ruled each of their lives for a period of time. (Even here, the story is more complicated than this description makes it out to be. One of the students profiled in the book may or may not have been bullied, but her suicide and the subsequent media frenzy shrank her tragic experience into a one-dimensional plot: She was seen by many to have been bullied to death.)

In the first two sections of her book—“Trouble” and “Escalation”—Bazelon describes the experiences of two girls and one boy as they navigate their respective schools’ responses to their situations with other students. She spends time in the schools and with the families of the teenagers involved, drilling down to approach what really happened in each case. In “Solutions” and “What Next” she explores bullying prevention programs and strategies, including the Second Step and Steps to Respect programs, describing what makes a program successful; and even visits the inner offices of Facebook to learn about ways social media can contribute to bullying and to prevention. Throughout, she follows each thread of information or, in many cases, misinformation, to the very end, revealing to the reader how many factors influence every situation, for better or for worse.

Ultimately, she concludes (not surprisingly), everyone, from children to parents to educators, must take some measure of responsibility. Without “blaming the victim,” Bazelon discusses how young people need to recognize whom they’re dealing with and act accordingly, and seek help when they need it and when it seems there’s a chance it will do some good. Sometimes, she acknowledges, turning to administrators or parents can do more harm than good. Bystanders need to know that even a small gesture after a bullying incident can be tremendously helpful to the target of the bullying: a quick text asking if that person is okay, a hand on the shoulder, sitting together on the bus. Parents need to decide when to intervene and when to allow their children to work things out. If schools choose to use a bullying prevention program, the most important thing is to commit to just one program (ideally one that emphasizes creating a school climate of support and safety) and not spread themselves too thin with multiple efforts. The end pages of Sticks and Stones are rich with resources for students, parents, and educators, including literature, movies, organizations, and an elegantly concise “Frequently Asked Questions” section that is actually more like an intelligent advice column, answering questions for kids such as “What can I do if I’m being harassed online?”; for parents: “If I think my child is being bullied, what should I do?”; and educators: “What methods should I avoid when dealing with bullies?”

Bazelon’s book is eminently readable; her research is thorough and even-handed; and her approach to a complicated, fraught issue is appropriately complex and multi-layered.