Writing to empower young people and children is a topic close to my heart, so I was thrilled to interview Karen Tyrrell, a local Brisbane author and former teacher, about her latest book Stop the Bully.
I met Karen virtually through the Monday writing sprint group on facebook (started by Anita Heiss and now chaired by Angela Sunde) which we are both members of and more recently have caught up with her in real space at Write links ( interested in joining email – email@example.com)
Karen’s book is written with children, victims, bullies and bystanders, parents, teachers, school Principals and the community all in mind. It focuses on eight to twelve year olds but as we shall find out is intended as inspiring and equipping anyone reading it to stop bullying. I ask Karen what led her to write a book about how to deal with bullying.
I was bullied as a child. Grade six was a bad year for me. I dealt with it by focusing on my school year and doing well. Later as an adult I was bullied when working as a teacher, by both parents and students over a period of two years, and although I initially seemed to cope with it, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital and suffering from a mental illness. I have since recovered from the bullying and mental illness and have become a mental health advocate and anti-bullying campaigner.
I realise now, I am the kind of person who when criticised becomes stronger and these experiences have made me into the advocate I am today.The goal with Stop the Bully was to create a fast paced story, a page turner with hooks that could send out positive messages about bullying prevention and resilience.I wanted an appealing story, where children could become engrossed in the story and care about characters.
Karen wanted to create a narrative which would empower readers to have their own discussions about how the characters deal with their challenges. She tells me the storyline of Stop the Bully:
Eleven year old Brian is hiding something can Brian stop the bully without revealing his shameful secret… His life is falling apart. Dad abandoned his Mum and sister Tara. Brian hates his new school. And now an aggressive bully attacks him every day. His shameful secret is a mystery, and is clues and hints as to what it might be are part of what makes the reader want to turn the page as they wonder What will Brian do? What will happen next?The mystery reveals the bullying dilemma from all angles including his parents, his classmates Pete and Amelia, his teacher Miss Bliss, the principal and even the bully who reveals his honest perspective.
Karen is keen to emphasise Stop the Bully will appeal to a wider audience than children being bullied:
It is a helpful tool forTeacher’s counsellors, mental health workers, and parents – as well as children themselves and I’ve had many children’s writers interested in it too.
I could have done with this book when my children were this age and being bullied and can’t help but share some of our family story with Karen. She is an empathetic listener.
Karen shares one of the major strategies for dealing with bullying in her book:
The book covers a range of strategies as different approaches might be needed depending on the situation, but the bigger picture is that a team including victim, perpetrators, parent, classmates and community is needed to deal with bullying, I cover all angles in Stop the Bully.
I am particularly taken with the idea that the whole community needs to be involved in stopping bullying.
Although it is early days in the case of the response to the book from the public, Karen has had a number of beta readers and reviewers from advocates for mental health to school Principals, children’s writers, and parents with children in the target age group of the book. She is active in a number of writing groups for adults and children and has drawn strength and support from these writers to write her book.
Since Karen’s past mental illness and triumphant recovery she has maintained links and connection with SANE and Beyond Blue. The response, from all who have had early exposure to the book, whilst it has been written, or in the limited pre-release has been overwhelmingly positive.
I was excited to receive some five star reviews and an extremely positive response from a school Principal. One of the reviewers, Ali Stegert, was particularly impressed that I wrote about the bully as sensitively as I wrote about the victim.
Another reviewer, a Children’s Mental Health promotion specialist is equally glowing: ‘My kids couldn’t put this book down! Clever characterization and compelling storyline gives ample opportunity for in-depth discussions on bullying and the strategies needed to tackle it.’ — Michael Hardie.
Karen’s most cherished goal is to have the book resonate with and empower children and their families.
She intimates that it is the:
emotion in book which allows young readers to identify with either Brian or his other classmates, a few kids going through challenge, boy and girl characters, empathise challenges, identify anti- bullying strategies come together at end. The book aims to open up discussions and then children can identify how they would react.
Just a few of the writers Karen considers inspirational to her own journey are:
Anita Heiss, Jenny Stubbs, and Susan Gervay for their work in the community with literacy, spreading positive social messages. Susan Gervay has also written a book about bullies, called I am Jack. PLUS I am spurred on by real life working class heroes who strive to speak out to help humanity.
I am inspired by people who have had big challenges in their lives, bullying, abuse, domestic violence and have then risen up and often become advocates for others.
When I ask Karen whether this book might have made a difference to her as a child she answers thoughtfully:
When I was a child bullying was not spoken about at all, school was all about learning facts. I had no idea when I was in year 6, of what to do, and felt like victim. Reading a book like this as a child could have possibly have changed my future life. Although the experience I had was necessary to writing this book. That said I think I have become stronger through my experiences and developed emotional wisdom and self -awareness, as well as greater awareness of how other people feel.
The irony of bullying is that whilst it is an experience that tests our children and can have dire consequences, for those who develop the same self -awareness and emotional wisdom as Karen it can be a crystallising and motivating experience.
The conversation with Karen, makes me recall another one with a woman who on hearing about my son’s experience of being bullied through high school by both students and teachers, had the self-awareness to admit, ‘I was a bully at school, and I totally regret it. We went for the sensitive boys, and one in particular who we teased or ignored, grew up to be extremely handsome and successful, and we gave him hell at school.’
There are several launches of Stop the Bully planned for Queensland. One has already been held in Brisbane. The Logan launch of the book will be held at Logan Library on June 21stKaren is looking forward all those who would benefit from the book joining her. All are welcome. There will be taekwondo demonstrations and some guest speakers in the mental health advocacy field.
My major concern for Australia at the moment is how we support and nurture our youth, this will be occupying my thoughts and actions as we head into the next decade.
Partly because of course I will have three teenagers next year, but also because I am thinking of all the nations and worlds young people and the need to build with them and for them a better brighter future. Let’s find a way forward.
If you are doing or can potentially do anything for youth please post this under this status statement or approach me for guest blog or interview. I want to gather some positive energy – and mention anyone out there doing amazing, empowering and positive work.
For me personally a brighter future for young people is about enabling them to find a spiritual centre, to walk with practical feet, and embody in their actions in the world, and their interconnection to others. It is about listening to them, encouraging them, giving them opportunities, and tools, enabling them to have opportunity from whatever beginning point they are given at birth and have no choosing in. It is about seeing them embrace service to humanity, with love, skill and patience.
It’s about moving it away from politics and thinking of young people as spiritual beings with immense energy, potential, drive and leading them into their role as co-custodians. It’s about youth making decisions that propel them forwards and propel those around them forwards so they can see themselves as carriers of hope, not burdens to be scared into action.
As a writer/artist I think the way for me to do this is to create projects, art works, films, stories that have this as their central drive and purpose. My challenge – to find a way to be sustainable in this work, to take greater care of providing finances to my children’s university or other education and finding ways for them to do that too. For this I need collaborators, ingenuity, inventiveness and to foster sustainability. Let’s face it not all forms of writing bring in enough to provide shelter let alone education for our youth.
It’s not about platitudes but walking a spiritual path with practical feet, and not sticking with anything outmoded that holds back the development of women, youth, people in general, and people dealt a rough initial starting point the world (born into poverty, or families with a need for healing, or without any caring family).
As I soul search my return to bread and butter work, as well as continuing the often voluntary arts and community work that is good for my soul, I begin to strive to bring all the elements of who I am together, and to try and be an example to my children and youth in my own family of how to do that. How can I make it better for them?
How can I use innovation, storytelling, creativity, ingenuity to become all I hope for them as well, a person whose work is not just bread and butter, but vocation, building a society that is not just about economy but about human spirit, and community?
There are many memorable stories in the real that beg for another life, that of fictionalised and immortalised.
My memory is initially drawing them as if I am an eager girl artist with chalk on a pavement.
Yet these stories ask for more than a moment and long not to be washed away like chalk with the passing of time, if it can be helped.
They need more than a passing remembrance.
Often they have to be disguised and transformed to protect the teller and the subject. With names changed and a few specific events altered they could lose some of their power, and yet their authenticity because they are inspired from real events speaks imploringly and passionately. Sometimes in the fictional realm, endings can be rewritten to what we hope for people, not what actually happens.
I found a few of these stories spoken this morning to my eldest son as we shared memories of other places we have lived and interesting people we have met. They were stories of everyday sorrow and lost promise, of perpetual children in adult’s bodies, so very Peter Pan, of children lost because parents did not put them first – the poetry of sorrow ebbs in these stories and pulls the participants in them into the undertow. Sometimes there is shame mingled with the sorrow.
I realise I will not write characters of privilege, but characters who long for transformation from the undertow, the places of margin and sadness. Perhaps they will live in poverty, perhaps they will be from rural country towns where the suicide rate is high. They come from places where dreams are lost as people are caught up in their fear of the unknown beyond the town. Yet their future if beyond the town has promise and hope, if they leave for the destinations of empowerment.
Some of the stories to tell are of people of strength, who build the margins into places where people would want to be. The margin is sometimes, if you are blessed, a community of sanctuary – that builds character ready for when you move into the centre.
When did I begin to want to tell these stories? What made these stories come to mind today?
Perhaps it was the first time I read Ann Frank’s diary.
Perhaps it was when I realised that people hated being Indians in the Cowboy Indian games when I was a child. Now they are native Americans and some want to be them more than they want to be cowboys.
Perhaps it was when I heard the N word used to describe me and my dark skin and wanted to know where that word came from and why it hurt so much.
Perhaps it was when I heard stories of my mother’s Papua New Guinea and felt tears spring to my eyes.
Perhaps it was yesterday when I heard of a million children in Australia growing up in the shadow of domestic violence.
Perhaps it was when I spent time for myself in the sanctuary of the margins, living alongside the lost and found.