Janice Levy is the author of a number of picture books including Gonzalo Grabs the Good Life and, most recently, Thomas the Toadilly Terrible Bully.
We recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the new book and the important issues it raises for young readers. We hope you enjoy reading her insightful answers — on teaching, bullying, the craft of picture book writing, and more — below.
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Why did you choose to write a picture book about bullying?
I’m a naturally curious person and tend to see the world in images. Ideas come to me in the form of “what if” questions. I start with the practical, the logical, the mundane. Then I step out onto the ledge of imagination, stretch my wings, and fly. It’s like blowing bubbles or releasing balloons; creating a “new normal” — it involves a quiet confidence, a leap of faith, and a willingness to go wherever my mind takes me.
I’m always on the look-out for what annoys and amuses kids, what moves them emotionally and intellectually. I go to their “hang-outs” — libraries, parks, malls — and watch them in action.
The idea for this particular book about bullying (I’ve written several others on the topic) came from overhearing a child complain about being teased at school. She felt the bully was basically a good kid turned bad, someone who could be nice if he only tried. She said he was a show-off and would do anything for attention. I, too, like to think that we’re all born with a clean slate of goodness and decency, but that “things” happen to us along the way, sometimes causing us to lash out at others in a hurtful, inappropriate way.
Around the same time I listened in on an adult conversation about a bullying boss who reminded a woman of her bullying husband who reminded her of her bullying father; in other words, the issue appeared to be all over the place. Writing for children is tricky; the material has to appeal to both adult and child. The subject of bullying, I feel, evokes an “aha moment” in people of every age.
Thomas isn’t exactly a typical picture book bully. How did you come up with the character?
Picture books need action, conflict, and a character readers can relate to. When writing funny-with-a-message books, children find animals less threatening than people. It’s why therapists encourage children to play with puppets as a way of expressing their emotions.
In my other books, ants, ducks, frogs, dogs — and even a talking radish(!) — have taken center stage. In Gonzalo Grabs the Good Life, another Eerdmans title, the main character is a quirky and cranky rooster.
I first imagined Thomas as a dreamy-eyed child: bouncing in his chair, full of energy, anxious for recess to begin. I saw him as an attention seeker, a wild-and-wacky guy, eager to please and to be included in the pack, but lacking confidence . . . the child who sees the hole in the fence but isn’t quite sure how to wiggle through. I wanted him to have problems, yet also potential.
Once I had his essence in my mind, I waved my magic wand, changed him into a toad, and invited him into my writing studio. I have a red chair that sits in front of an easel.
Whether I write children’s books or adult fiction, the process is the same. My characters hop, bop, shimmy, and salsa about my office, sketching scenes, coloring in and out of the lines. They shout, pout, whisper — or in Thomas’s case, croak — in my ear and I’m off, typing as fast as I can. “Janice Levy” moves out of the way so the characters can take over.
Writing is like being an undercover detective. I track down a lead and follow it, zig-zagging down the street, jumping over potholes, hiding behind cars. Like a bloodhound, everything else disappears except the scent. That’s why I write fast in a stream-of-conscious style. Ideas are like rainbows — as beautiful as they may appear to be, if you wait too long, they mush-up and disappear.
Thomas not only works to humanize bullies, it also shows how young bullies can change and grow. What do you hope children who may be tempted to bully their peers will take away from this book?
I do a writing exercise with my students (I’ve taught all ages — now I’m at the university level) where they remove their shoes and put them in the middle of the floor. They then choose a different pair and free-write for three minutes. They invent a character, a problem, a time and place; in other words, they “walk in another person’s shoes.” We do this several times. It encourages the students to think quickly and imaginatively. They must feel another’s sorrow, fear, anger, loneliness . . . then we brain-storm the stories’ resolutions, suggesting how to solve the conflicts.
How does it feel to be picked last when kids choose up sides? . . . To not find a “trip buddy” and have to sit with the teacher on the bus? . . . To be tripped, spit-on, sucker-punched, have your lunch stolen and your books thrown in the garbage can? . . . To walk down the hall and have your path blocked? . . . To find curses written on your locker?
I hope that children who are tempted to bully their peers will think twice — and be nice!
Many books about bullying are dead serious, but yours is entertaining — even funny. Paired with Bill and Esperança’s artwork, it’s even more entertaining. Why did you choose to take such a lighthearted approach to your subject matter?
Kids don’t like to be talked down to or lectured, so I infuse humor into “teaching moments.” Think of Mary Poppins and how she made the “medicine go downnnnnn.” It’s hard to be happy when nothing seems right or fair, but, a smile goes a long way. With laughter, there is hope.
What advice would you give to the victims of childhood bullying and their parents?
When I do a reading/book signing, I observe and listen. It’s easy to pick out the bullies and victims in the audience. They give off signs in their laughter (too loud . . . drawing attention . . . avoiding eye contact . . . blushing . . . checking out others’ reactions first) and movement (pushing to the front . . . hiding in the back . . . clinging to an adult . . . ).
I also note the caregivers’ behavior and comments. Are they the macho(a) “nobody picks on MY child” type? When their children express interest in the book, these adults make light of bullying. They feel threatened, themselves, somehow — as if it’s their fault that their child is “less than.” Or they condone and, in essence, encourage bullying by adopting a “boys will be boys” and “girls are always nasty, anyway, so it’s no big deal” attitude. Some adults feel ignoring the issue is the best solution, as if bullying is as easily outgrown as a pair of sneakers.
I find these parent/child interactions painful to witness. The child flips through the pages of my book, lingering, eyes down, sometimes whispering her victimization to me — but the parent refuses to get involved. There’s a sudden yank of the hand and the child — with her concerns still unanswered — disappears out the door.
I’d encourage parents and educators to give children the space and time to confide their problems. Kids need to feel protected and hopeful. They want others to take their side. Sometimes it’s just a five minute “quiet time” at the end of a long day, where parents listen with what I call a “third ear” to what is not being said. It’s a simple “I am sorry for your pain. I am here for you. We will work this out.” — without recriminations, anger and emotional outbursts. It’s stability and safety; a “brain trust.”
My children are grown now, but even now, when something comes up or goes wrong in their lives, I still say, “Team Levy, all aboard! We’ll work this out.”
In my university classroom, as well as in one-on-one writing, mentoring, and coaching relationships, I do my best to teach and apply these principles. When my students and clients express fear in having their work critiqued, I suggest they find a “love shield” — someone who will be honest, yet kind and respectful . . . who will never humiliate or ridicule — in other words, not a bully.
Yet I also tell them to look beyond “bullies” and “victims” and keep their eyes open for the “iceberg effect.” When you’re on a ship and see an iceberg, the part — maybe just 20% — that juts out of the water is mildly interesting. But the part you can’t see — the 80% that’s under the surface — that’s what grabs you, that’s what you go for in your writing. What is your character hiding? What are his innermost dreams, fears and desires? What is she not telling you?
It works with characters in stories — with “toadilly terrible bullies” like Thomas; it works with real people in real life situations, too.
Do you have a question for Janice Levy? Leave us a note in the comments, and we’ll ask her!