Stories about bullies are legion these days. Once the media decide to concentrate on a given problem, everyone in the world has to write a children’s book about it, certain that just one more story will save a generation of children from harm. Some cautionary tales, however, rise to the level of literature. Lauren Wolk’s story takes a different tack from everything else I’ve read on the topic. It is set during the Second World War in rural Pennsylvania, and the bully is not that tough boy in the classroom; it’s a girl.
Annabelle and her two younger brothers walk through the woods to school every day, and they’ve never run across anyone except for the gentle World War I veteran, Toby. Toby has chosen to live apart from society, and although he hunts for his own food, Annabelle’s mother sometimes sends some of their meals to him, as well. One day, the new girl, Betty, met Annabelle in the woods, demanding that she give her something valuable, and threatening to hurt her youngest brother if she told anyone about it. Annabelle is a girl of fine character, and she tries to stand up to Betty and not allow herself to be intimidated, but her decision has dire consequences—for herself, her family, and for Toby.
Ms. Wolk crafts a tale that is much more complex and frightening than the usual bully story. As readers, we cheer Annabelle’s strength, because we’ve all been taught that the correct response to bullies is to refuse to give in to their demands and refuse to be silent. But Betty is a truly evil person; she is not just misunderstood. She does not suddenly see the error of her ways and repent. She is a bully. Furthermore, she is not at all squeamish about lying to save herself, and she is shrewd enough about human nature to know that a man who lives in the woods and carries guns looks much guiltier than a young, disingenuous girl.
This is an incredibly compelling novel, and it will appeal to both girls and boys from 10-14, perhaps, although your readers should be mature enough to understand some of the unspoken accusations that might come from police officers wondering what happened between a man and a girl in the forest. Look for discussions about bullying in your children’s lives today. They will be much more nuanced after this book!
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.