5 Novels Exploring the Theme of Bullying

Whether they’re taking your lunch money or forcing you to do their dirty work, bullies and their bullying have always been a big part of story-telling.

While these novels show us that it isn’t always easy to accept who we are, they also teach us the value of accepting others.

We all need someone to root against: a child-hating headmistress, a sneering popular student, an abusive father. They pick on what makes a person different, whether it be cultural, racial, physical, or mental, and do their utmost to make their life miserable.

But while it’s fun to see a bully get their just desserts, it’s far more interesting to focus on the protagonist’s journey.

Whether it’s an uplifting story of a child overcoming their school bully, or an exploration of the long-term effects of bullying, it’s the stories of those who go against the grain that teach us to love what makes us unique.

iTHINK suggests five novels about such outsiders and their internal struggle between blending in and standing out.

1. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder tells the story of August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who is starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep. Having been born with a serious facial deformity, Auggie was home-schooled up until now, and he must navigate a totally new social environment.

Auggie is smart, funny, and armed with a positive attitude as he sets out to make new friends. But most of his fellow students and even some adults cannot seem to get past the way he looks.

Avoided, insulted, and even feared because of his face, Auggie just wishes someone would take the time to get to know him.

Though he faces bullying and rejection on a daily basis, Auggie eventually manages to befriend two of his classmates: Jack and Summer.

With his new friends by his side, and his parents and sister’s love and support, Auggie learns to ignore the bad people in this world and to focus instead on the good ones.

Wonder is almost guaranteed to bring tears to a readers’ eyes; either tears of joy, tears of sadness, or both. A heart-warming story about friendship and acceptance, Wonder can be enjoyed by children and adults alike: you’re never too old to be reminded to be kind.

2. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

President of the chess club and straight-A student Piper Vaughan is an intelligent and hard-working high-schooler. But everyone around her seems to fixate on one thing and one thing only: that she’s deaf.

Piper lost her hearing at a young age and, though she gets by with the help of hearing aids and lip-reading, social interactions are difficult for her. She’s witty and opinionated but in the social jungle of high school, she’s invisible.

High-school rock band Dumb is all but invisible. After winning a local Teen Battle of the Bands, Dumb is riding high on their fifteen minutes of fame.

But Piper thinks they could be better. When Dumb’s arrogant lead singer, Josh, catches Piper talking about how Dumb could improve and capitalize on their new-found fame, he challenges her to manage them and book them paying gig.

Piper is reluctant at first to accept, but when she realized her parents have spent her college fund on-ear implants for her baby sister, she agrees to manage Dumb. She vows to make them a better band, even if she won’t be able to hear it.

Five Flavors of Dumb is both funny and encouraging. It demonstrates how resilience and a supportive environment can help overcome seemingly unsurpassable obstacles.

Told through the perspective of Piper, not only does it explore the direct negative treatment she faces because of her impairment, but also the more subtle lack of acceptance she receives from her father, who refuses to learn sign language.

3. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat’s Eye follows the story of Elaine Risley, an aging artist travelling to her childhood home in Toronto for a retrospective of her work.

Returning to Toronto, Elaine can’t help but remember the events of her childhood, and the traumatic experiences that have continued to impact her life well into adulthood.

Having spent the first few years of her life with her family in the Canadian wilderness, Elaine does not understand the social rules involved in making friends.

So, when she moves to Toronto at the age of eight and has to interact with girls her age for the first time, she is understandably unsure of how to befriend them.

The girls in question are a trio of friends who pretend to accept Elaine into their group only to humiliate and bully her with rules and punishments meant to ‘improve’ her.

Suffering from the negative environment created by her so-called “friends,” Elaine falls into a spiral of depression, self-harm, frequent illness, and fainting spells.

As the girls continue to bully her, Elaine comes closer and closer to reaching her breaking point. But the girls’ bullying leaves no physical marks, leaving Elaine feeling unable to ask for help.

But when a prank finally pushes her – both literally and metaphorically – over the edge, a tumble into an icy river opens her eyes to the victim she has allowed herself to become.

Dark and haunting, Atwood reveals the horror and long-lasting impact of psychological bullying, and how insidious it can be, particularly among children.

4. Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

A work of historical fiction set in Virginia in 1959, Lies We Tell Ourselves follows the story of Sarah Dunbar and Linda Hairston; two very different girls brought forcibly together by a school project.

Sarah is one of the first black girls to attend their previously all-white school. She immediately becomes a target for mistreatment, both by the teachers, who place the former honour student in remedial classes and by the other students, who torment her mercilessly.

Linda is the daughter of a passionate segregationist and has been raised to believe that the races should exist separately. She opposes the school integration just as her peers do, and the last thing she wants is to have to work with Sarah.

Theoretically, Sarah and Linda should not get along. Theoretically, they should hate one another. But as the two girls spend more and more time together, Linda realises that her hatred and bias is completely unfounded and begins to form her own opinions.

But not only do the girls start to get along; they begin to feel something towards one another that must be hidden at all costs.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is a powerful novel that reveals the horrific experiences of the first black children to enter white-only schools.

It tackles the themes of discrimination, race, and sexuality and highlights the challenges faced by and the bravery of those who are learning to be their true selves.

5. Future Perfect by Jen Larsen

Ashley Perkins is happy with who she is. She’s valedictorian of her high-school, class president, captain of the volleyball team, and was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ in her yearbook.

Her grandmother, however, isn’t satisfied. Despite Ashley’s many successes, her grandmother only sees what she considers to be one, glaring failure: that Ashley is fat.

Every year on her birthday, Ashley is offered a fantastic, extravagant gift from her grandmother, but only under the condition that she lose weight.

Every year, Ashley turns her grandmother down. She is absolutely fine with the way she looks. But this year, her grandmother makes her an offer that makes her hesitate: tuition to attend Harvard University in exchange for undergoing weight-loss surgery.

Pressured by seemingly everyone else to accept her grandmother’s offer, Ashley is stuck between sticking to her beliefs and continuing to be happy with who she is or giving up her lifelong battle against her grandmother to go to her dream university.

An inspiring story about loving your body and staying true to yourself, Future Perfect is exactly what you need if you suffer from body image issues and anxiety about societal perception.

Embrace uniqueness, and these protagonists

While these novels show us that it isn’t always easy to accept who we are, they also teach us the value of accepting others.

We can all take steps towards creating a kind and safe environment for people different to ourselves, and hope that others with follow in kind, and accept us too.

We hope you’ve found a rewarding read among these five books, and a unique protagonist to cheer on.