"Blubber" (Don't Read it Alone)!
Source: Laura Dail
About the time nasty Nellie Oleson was bullying the sweet, good Ingalls girls of "Little House on the Prairie," Judy Blume published a novel called "Blubber". It was 1974. There were mean girls long before that and we've seen a spectacular line-up saunter by since, but Judy Blume's Wendy is as wicked a mean girl as I have read.
"Blubber" is a stunning book about bullying that is not for the faint-hearted. You may have fond memories of "Forever." Or maybe you enjoyed the author's almost timeless Fudge books, but "Blubber" is no "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing." I picked it up this summer to read along with my ten year old and was reduced to tears and outrage within pages.
There's a harsh sense of humor here and a nastiness that not only goes unpunished, it usually goes unremarked. Here's an example: "Most of the time Donna smells like a horse but I wouldn't tell her that because she might think it's a compliment." And that's not even the mean girl. That's the narrator, Jill Brenner. The central cruelty starts when this fifth grade class is reading aloud their reports on mammals. Linda Fischer chooses whales. She mentions, of course, blubber, the thick layer of fat that helps keep whales warm. Wendy passes a note to her minion: "Blubber is a good name for her." By the end of the day, everyone is not just calling Linda Blubber, but taunting her and singing to the tune of "Beautiful Dreamer" "Blubbery blubber . . . blub, blub, blub, blub . . ." They steal her jacket, throw spit balls at her, and there ends chapter 1.
The teasing is not just relentless. It feels violent - with forced eating and forced kissing, with spitting and scary threats of physical harm. They humiliate the victim, insult and isolate her. And they blame her (she lets everybody walk all over her, they say. She can't laugh it off. She told on us for this other, unrelated thing.) They frame her and dehumanize her, then call her crazy. Are you miserable yet? Linda is. But the beat goes on and there is not enough room here to list all the egregious painful things they do to this poor girl. Just a few more lowlights: holding her hands behind her back to lift her skirt and make her show the boys her underwear, shoving her in a closet, and in the climax, putting her on trial without a lawyer.
Much is unresolved in this brutal book. Wendy never apologizes. She never gets hers either. There is no neat redemption. Jill does eventually make one decision that hints of a conscience, but not before inflicting a lot of pain. She decides that there should be fairness in the mock trial and that Linda deserves a lawyer. Is that the lesson you want your kid to take away from a book about bullying? That when you are torturing a peer in a mock trial she is entitled to representation? Alliances shift - is that the lesson we want our kids to learn? Where is compassion and kindness, integrity and restraint? How are there no adults to bring up these ideas?
The teachers, by the way, are one hundred percent oblivious to all of this. The parents about ninety-five. The thrust of the teasing is about Linda being fat (though it is reported early on that Linda is not the pudgiest girl in the class). The narrator is skinny and a finicky eater. "Jill doesn't have to worry," Wendy says. "Not like some people." And then, of course, they tease Linda: "Blubber's on a diet!" So something is being said about weight, but what that is is never illuminated. And the assumptions are never corrected.
Bullying is complex and nuanced. It is dangerous and it's essential we address it with our kids. But I worry for the tween reading this alone - it's too harsh. If your little one really wants to read this, read it with her. Or try a kinder, gentler, clearer book about bullying from which a young reader can more easily draw some good lessons, like The Manny Files by Christian Burch or Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell
Laura Dail is a literary agent in New York, the mother of a ten-year old, and the author of TRULY YOURS: The Miracle of Adoption