CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 10 . . . . November 6, 2009
Until the day Lily Jean moved next door, Carly and her older sister, Sandy, always played together. Unfortunately for Carly, because Lily Jean wants Sandy all to herself, Lily Jean makes Carly pretend to be a baby, a cow, and a dog while Lily Jean and Sandy pretend to be adults, cowgirls, and kings and queens. Carly puts up with Lily Jean's bullying in an effort to keep playing with the older girls - until she's asked to be a dog. At this point, Carly finds a way to turn her canine qualities on Lily Jean, befriend her sister, and send a firm message to the two older girls about the consequences of not playing fair.
Essentially, You're Mean, Lily Jean is a story about bullying. The story contains the three main 'actors' indicative of most bullying situations. That is, Lily Jean is the bully who tries to drive Carly away from Sandy. Sandy is a bystander who has difficulty stopping Lily Jean's bullying. And Carly is a victim (for most of the story) in that she allows Lily Jean to bully her.
The classic bullying characters and dynamics of this story can be used to help children recognize bullies and bullying and can open up discussions into some of the steps children can take to stop a bully and diffuse some bullying situations. However, it must be noted that, because it is difficult for many children to stand up to a bully, and because the story does not introduce how important it is for bullying victims to talk to a 'trusted adult,' adults readers will need to deliberately approach and develop this concept with their audience.
One of the many strengths of this story is that the characters and scenarios are realistic and do not have a feeling of being contrived. For example, the games the girls play are not stereotypical (they play dragons and knights, kings and queens), their actions and gestures are typical of this age group (e.g., Lily Jean is illustrated with a closed fist and outstretched pointed hand when she gets angry at Carly), and their language sounds similar to that parents and educators would hear during their children's play in their homes and playgrounds (e.g., "Hey, come back!" and "You can't be a dog ever again!"). Such realism will help students identify with the story, empathize with the characters, and understand the importance of the book's central message: 'to care for others in the same way you wish to be cared for.'
As is the case with the art in many of MacDonald Denton's children's books' illustrations (e.g., Sea Wishing Day and A Second is a Hiccup) the illustrations in You're Mean Lily Jean are colourful, dynamic, and full of motion and vitality. The protagonists' faces and body gestures clearly reflect the children's emotions (important for discussing feelings with young children), and the backgrounds visually reflect children's environments without being overbearing or distracting. In short, the illustrations are a visual delight and clearly reinforce messages presented in the text.
Many readers will love to detest the overconfident and overbearing character of Lily Jean. As one elementary child said to me after I read this story to her, "Lily Jean is just one very mean bully." Lily Jean is also central to the development of the story's strong plot and believable tensions. Many children will see bullies in their own lives reflected in Lily Jean's words and actions. However, it is the manner in which Carly very ingeniously reveals and challenges Lily Jean's bullying that brings a fresh new view to the solution of standing up to bullies.
The book is an absolutely fabulous read aloud for K-3 children. The sentences roll off the reader's tongue like schoolyard language. Similarly, there are lots of opportunities for the reader (and audience) to mimic characters actions and 'big gestures' (e.g., when Lily Jean gets mad, she thrusts her arm in the air, points at Carly and then shouts, "Hey, come back!"). However, I highly recommend readers read through the text aloud once before reading it to a class as I found the 'jagged' font to be a little difficult to read, and I stumbled several times when retelling it to an audience the first time.
A must-read for close siblings who will be moving to a new neighbourhood. A fresh resource for parents and teachers wishing to explore bullying dynamics and develop children's action plans for stopping bullies. And a story full of believable characters and events that will have you and your readers identifying with the effort it can take to maintain old friendships when shaping new.
Keith McPherson has been a primary and elementary teacher and teacher-librarian in BC since 1984 and is currently an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia.
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