Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Books & Bullying: Writing to Celebrate Difference”
I like to say that I began writing before I knew how to write. By that I mean that I made up stories, acting them out with my dolls and stuffed animals, turning them into plays to perform with my neighborhood friends, or dictating them to my father, who would then type them out on the manual typewriter his father gave him when he was a young man. Writing, in my head and on paper, was my way of making sense of the world and my place in it.
For a boy who played with dolls and stuffed animals more often than he played with bats and balls, making sense of my place in the world was no small accomplishment. By the time I had a daughter struggling with her own sense of identity, I was an established writer whose themes had long been the acceptance of others and the celebration of difference in oneself. Even so, I felt helpless as I watched Zoey being teased and cast out in middle school.
“Why does this have to go on?” I asked myself. “Why are kids, especially those in the middle school years, so cruel to one another? Why can’t they see that being different only means being oneself?”
These were the kinds of questions that led me to write The Misfits (S & S, 2001). Adopting the voice of a character from a short story I had abandoned earlier, I quickly found my way to four seventh graders–best friends who feel good about who they are, but are perceived as different. The four decide to run for student council on a platform promoting the end of name-calling in their school.
There isn’t much I can say about the process of writing The Misfits. It is one of the rare books that truly seemed to write itself, which I suspect had to do with the urgency of the subject matter, as well as the inclusion of Joe Bunch, an out-and-outrageous, gay-and-girly twelve-year-old—a stand-in for the boy I wish I could have been.
Though it didn’t happen when The Misfits was first published in 2001, Joe was pretty much the reason the book came under attack after it inspired the national anti-bullying movement No Name-Calling Week, which was launched in 2004. No Name-Calling Week has been attacked for its “gay agenda,” when of course its only agenda is to make life more bearable for children like my daughter and those whose perceived differences turn them from multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional targets of cruelty and hate.
After years of speaking in elementary schools about my writing process, I now find my time divided between them and middle schools, where I talk with students about bullying, name-calling, and the acceptance of difference. I am energized by this work, and have been inspired by it to write three more books about the characters in The Misfits.
Joe was the first to get his own book, because he was the one that most students wanted to know more about. In writing Totally Joe (S & S, 2005), I slipped into his character even more comfortably than I had in The Misfits. Some of his stories are mine. The format for that book was suggested to me by an assignment given by one of Zoey’s teachers: use the letters of the alphabet as keyword chapter headings to tell your story. I dubbed this an “alphabiography,” and I am happy to report that a number of language arts teachers are now using the same format with their classes.
I chose to write Addie On the Inside (S & S, 2011)—the story of Addie Carle, the one girl in the group—through poems, which I loved doing, but clearly the format contributed to the fact that it took me four years to write the book! At one point I spread the poems out on my dining room table so that I could shuffle them around and find the storyline.
The last book, Also Known as Elvis (S & S, 2014), tells a more personal story of Skeezie Tookis, who is dealing with a broken family and a broken heart. But even in Skeezie’s book, I explore the impact of being different and being bullied.
These books and these characters have given me the opportunity to tell my own story, the story of a boy who once felt different and used his imagination and his words to make sense of the world and his place in it. They have given me a forum from which to speak to young people today—about who they are and who they want to be.
Hear James Howe share the story of his name.
Watch James Howe read an excerpt from Totally Joe.
See all resources available for James Howe.