Beat bullying with books

Nora Nagy

Bullying is always a central issue in discussions about school, safety and emotional health. Healthier schools and environments can be distinguished from the ones where bullying becomes a real issue in the way they handle bullying. And although we cannot eliminate the phenomenon, one thing is clear: the more we discuss bullying the more it becomes visible making it easier to eradicate and to deal with the harm it causes to everyone involved. But the first question we need to ask ourselves is what is bullying.

What is bullying?

Bullying is the intentional aggressive behaviour of one (or more) people towards another (or others) in order to gain power. There are many types of bullying and it may not always be visible. It may be physical (through aggressive behaviour), verbal (through name-calling, threatening or gossiping) or exclusionary (through excluding the victim/s from interaction). Bullying is often rooted in discrimination where the victim is selected because of his/her race, religion, sexual orientation or other distinguishing feature such as disability.  Cyber bullying, the use of technology to bully someone, is on the increase and as it is almost invisible it is difficult to intervene.

Bullies are as much a victim of their own behaviour as their victims. There are often very painful and understandable reasons behind their actions. But before we can help them we need to stop the bullying.

How can we help?

Bullying is sometimes evident, we either witness it talking place, hear the bully boasting about his/her behaviour or see the signs on the victim. But it often happens that the victim is silent about it, either through shame or fear, or that te actual bullying happens out of school. Here are two simple but powerful approaches you can take in class.

Talk openly about bullying

Unless you talk about bullying, it will remain a taboo topic and students will not have the language or authority to express their feelings about it. Talk openly about this problem, explain what it is, and encourage your students to discuss it.

  • Define the phenomenon
  • Explain that it exists in many different forms
  • Describe and discuss the feelings a bullied person might have (for example anxiety, humiliation, fear)
  • Describe and discuss the feelings a bully might have (for example anger, low self-esteem, frustration)
  • Think of things you can do if you witness bullying
  • Think of what you can do if it happens to you

Approach bullying through stories

Talking about first-hand experiences of bullying might be difficult for students. If this is the case, you can rely on the power of stories to introduce the topic. We often find it easier to discuss difficult situations through other people's narratives and reading allows us to think about situations and how we would deal with them before they happen.

Here are three stories to help you with this.

The Bully (The Thinking Train Series)

  • winner in the Extensive Reading Foundation's Language Learner Literature Award
  • written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini, activities by Marion Williams
  • for very young learners, beginner level

Charlie isn’t very nice to the other children. They’re scared of him. Then it’s his birthday. Charlie invites all the children to his party. But no one comes. Charlie is sad, and is sorry. He begins to be nice to the other children. And they start to like him.

In this simple story you can see a typical example of bullying at school. Charlie is an angry child who wants more attention. This picture book is aimed at very young learners at a beginner level. The visual narrative will help you and your young readers make meaning through the pictures and with your guidance they can also read the story.

The Anti-bully Squad

  • written by Rick Sampedro, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini
  • for teens, elementary level


When a pair of bullies hurt Arjun, the youngest boy in class, Tom, Ziggy and Tara decide that it is time to do something. They set up the Anti-bully Squad but they soon discover that the bullies are prepared to do anything to get their own way. Can they find a way to stop the bullies before it is too late?

This story shows us a great example of how talking and acting together can help us deal with bullying.


Dan and the Village Fête

  • written by Richard MacAndrew, illustrated by Giulia Sagramola
  • for teens at an elementary level


It’s the day of the Steeple Compton village fête and everyone is happy. Everyone except Sue Barrington, the new girl in town. Sue’s friend Dan is worried. Dan finds out that someone called Nemesis is bullying Sue and he decides to help. Who can Nemesis be? And why does he or she want to hurt Sue? Only Dan the detective and his dog Dylan can find out.


Preparing for reading

If you choose one of these three stories, you can start by presenting the story instead of the topic.

  • Let your students explore the images in the story and browse the book.
  • Work on the 'before reading' activities.
  • Give your students some time to read the book either in class or at home.
  • Focus their attention on the reflection boxes in our Red Readers.

When your students have finished reading the story, talk about their own feelings and encourage them to retell the story. If they find it hard to talk use the illustrations as support. You can also ask them to make notes on the reflection boxes.

Sample reflection box from Helbling Reader The Anti-bully Squad, written by Rick Sampedro. © Helbling Languages

Then, you can discuss how they would act and feel in the situations described in the stories. From here you can further develop discussions on bullying.

Helbling Languages