"Once a man, twice a child." It's been a while since I read a children's book, a tradition I recently broke when I read a book about a grave problem in contemporary society, bullying.
According to BullyingCanada.ca, "approximately one in 10 children have bullied others and as many as 25 per cent of children in grades four to six have been bullied."
The children's book I read — "The Adventures of Gus and Isaac: Backyard Bullies" — is written by Debbie Hanlon and illustrated by Grant Boland.
The publisher describes the book this way: "When Isaac the bobtailed cat is being beaten up by the backyard bullies, Gus the seagull comes to the rescue."
In this story, bullies roam backyards, scaring everyone spitless. When Isaac moves into the neighbourhood, it's only a matter of time before he's the next target. However, the cat and seagull form a relationship, which enables them to stand up to the bullies.
I wondered why Hanlon wrote the book.
"As a single mother on social assistance, with three children to entertain, I found the cheapest way of doing that was to make up stories to tell them," she says. "That experience sowed a seed in me that maybe I could write a children's book ... It was a way I could talk to children on their level without sounding like I was telling them what to do."
Today, she wants to "help children with problems they face in real life."
Hanlon writes from her own painful experience with bullying.
She explains: "When I was 12, I moved from Chance Cove to St. John's. Now, being a new skinny redhead with a bay accent in a large school, I stood out like a freckled thumb. I was bullied relentlessly."
She realizes "bullying cuts across all social and age levels." Child bullies tend to beget adult bullies, she suggests. "By then," she says, "it's too late."
Meanwhile, adults must "take charge and correct it. Bullying is a learned behaviour, so therefore it can be unlearned. To tackle such a serious issue, I strongly believe it starts with talking about it."
Hanlon sees her book as a way of opening the door for both children and adults to discuss bullying.
In the first of what is to be a series of Gus and Isaac books, "the main message is that being a bystander and just ignoring a bullying situation just isn't cool," the author says. To stand around and do nothing makes us "part of the problem, not the solution."
She says she was surprised by what she found while researching the topic. For example, "bystanders are also affected deeply by bullying, as the fear of being bullied sometimes results in the bystander joining in the bullying, as well as sometimes turning a blind eye."
She wants children to "know they're not powerless, that they can do something good, and also that the adults are here to help," she indicates.
She learned that bullies bully for many complex reasons, including upbringing, being bullied themselves, and feelings of insecurity.
Admittedly, "none of these are easily fixed, and I don't pretend to have all the answers, but what I think would help is talking about it. Kids talking to each other or with adults brings the problem out into the light ... Opening that dialogue would be the advice I'd have for anyone involved in bullying. Talking about a problem ... is the first step to dealing with it in a positive manner, which will hopefully lead to a positive outcome."
Incidentally, Hanlon sprinkles throughout her book what she calls "colourful Newfoundland and Labrador words." Her intention is to "help keep our native tongue alive." One of her inspirations in life was her late grandfather. "I want him to live on through me and my children and their children and so on. To do that, we need to keep our unique language alive and, by having stories such as this one, I feel we can."
A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions of such words and phrases as afeard, gaffer, bluffs, coopied, vamps, hard ticket, cockabaloo, berg, sleveen, flake, scrawb, clout, dirty dogfish, in a dwall, bridge, slewed, skittered, scardy cat, spudgel and yarned.
"The Adventures of Gus and Isaac: Backyard Bullies" is published by Breakwater Books in St. John's.
Hanlon's future plans include writing books which deal with other real-life problems children face.
"That's not a bad way to spend my time," she says.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at email@example.com