Monday, January 11, 2016


Bullying and name-calling are unfortunately just as much a problem in schools today as they were long ago. Picture books can help students think about the ramifications of unkind behavior and ways to interact differently. With Random Acts of Kindness Week  approaching next month, (February 14-20, 2016) here are two book suggestions to get your students writing and discussing better ways of getting along.

Desmond and the Very Mean Word by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams takes place in South Africa and is a story from the Archbishop’s childhood.

In this story, Desmond’s joy in riding his bicycle is destroyed by a gang of boys who block his path. The tallest boy with red hair shouts a mean word that hurts Desmond’s feelings deeply. The word is never named but it holds great power over Desmond.

“That night, Desmond lay in bed, trying to read his comic book by candlelight. Instead of the words on the page, he kept seeing the mean word written over and over again.”

Later, Desmond tries to exact revenge by shouting the meanest word he can think of at the boy who insulted him. The action only leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. At the end of the story, Desmond confronts the red-haired boy again. This time for apologies. Desmond rides away on his bicycle with outstretched arms, savoring his feeling of freedom and a desire to embrace the world.

My book, Never Say a Mean Word Again, was inspired by a legend from medieval Spain. Since the original tale takes place between two adults, it took me many years to translate its core meaning for young readers.

In Never Say a Mean Word Again, Samuel is the son of the vizier, the most powerful advisor in the royal court. But being the son of an important man does not help clumsy Samuel make friends. When he accidentally spills food all over Hamza’s white tunic at a banquet, angry words are spoken. Samuel looks to his father, the grand vizier, to punish Hamza. The vizier says, “No. You will take care of this matter. Make sure Hamza never says a mean word to you again.”

Like Desmond, in Desmond and the Very Mean Word, Samuel stays awake that night, thinking. How can he make sure that Hamza never says a mean word to him again? Should he make Hamza eat a lemon? Would that be a good punishment for a boy who said mean things? But when Samuel shows up at Hamza’s door, the two boys end up playing ball with the lemon. Later, Samuel charges over to Hamza’s house with pen and paper. He will make Hamza write out a promise. Instead, the boys draw a picture together. Day after day, Samuel visits Hamza with a new plan. Maybe he could beat Hamza at chess or in a water fight. They become used to spending time together and when the vizier finds them playing marbles in the courtyard, he asks his son. “Did you do what I asked? Did you make sure that Hamza never says a mean word to you again?” Samuel looks at his new friend’s smiling face and says, “Yes, Father. I did.”

In Desmond and the Very Mean Word and Never Say a Mean Word Again, two boys ultimately resolve their differences with kindness. Read one or both of these books aloud to your class. Discuss the following questions and choose one of the writing prompts for writing workshop.

Discussion Questions:
1. Is it possible to make friends with someone who has insulted you?
2. Have you ever made friends with someone or forgiven someone who hurt your feelings?
3. What would you do if someone called you a name?
4. Is there a fair punishment for name-calling?

Personal Narrative Writing Prompt:
Describe a time when you had a misunderstanding or problem with someone. Were angry words spoken? How was the situation resolved?

Fiction Writing Prompt:
George is playing basketball alone on the school playground. A student from another class grabs the ball and refuses to let George play. What happens next?

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