Trudy Ludwig: Bullying, Empathy, and Perspective
By Phoebe Vreeland with Amanda Lynch, The Children’s Book Review
Published: December 12, 2010
“Trudy Ludwig is an award-winning author who specializes in writing children’s books that explore the colorful and sometimes confusing world of children’s social interactions. She has received rave reviews nationwide from educators, experts, organizations, and parents for her passion and compassion in addressing relational aggression—the use of relationships to manipulate and hurt others.” ~ www.trudyludwig.com
TCBR: What inspired you to write about bullying?
Trudy Ludwig: When my daughter was emotionally bullied nine years ago by some of her peers in elementary school, I tried to find age-appropriate books in libraries and on the Internet to help teach her about relational aggression (the use of relationships to manipulate and hurt others) and how to deal with it. I even contacted leading experts and organizations for their suggestions. I learned that there weren’t enough resources available, so I decided to write children’s books to help fill this resource gap.
TL: In my author visits at schools around the US, I had many children ask me, “What ever happened to Katie in My Secret Bully? Did she and Monica become friends again?” They also wanted to know if Katie ever got help to change her bullying ways. Their queries got me thinking about writing a book from the unique perspective of a former bully. So when I started to conceptualize Confessions of a Former Bully, it just seemed natural for me to have Katie pick up where she left off in My Secret Bully. My intent for this story was to show readers how Katie’s behaviors—both positive and negative—had a direct impact on her and others. I also wanted Katie to share the important lessons she learned about bullying and what it means to be a decent friend.
TCBR: What made you use the format of a diary for this last book?
TL: There’s something thrilling and intriguing about being allowed access to someone else’s personal diary, don’t you think? I remember, as a child, being tempted to read my big sister’s diary—not that I did, mind you, as she made sure it was securely locked at all times. I felt that the diary format, supplemented with Katie’s drawings and doodles, would be the perfect way for the reader to get inside the head of Katie and track her character growth as she gets help from Mrs. Petrowski, the school counselor.
TCBR: How do you manage to write in a language that is authentic to youth?
TL: I’m around kids a lot. I have two children of my own, I volunteer in the classroom, and I present to thousands of kids at schools throughout the academic year. I pay close attention to how they interact with each other. When I write, I try to realistically capture their social world, as I want to come from a place of respect for who they are and how they express themselves. Also, with every manuscript I write, I always test the story out on my most important critics: elementary school kids. Their feedback helps me to make sure that the story and characters are believable and relatable.
TCBR: I love the character Mrs. Petrowski, the school counselor. Her strength and wisdom come through even though we are hearing about her through Katie’s journal entries. Can you speak a bit about the construction of that character?
TL: When I was brainstorming characters for Confessions of a Former Bully, I envisioned Mrs. Petrowski as a cross between Mary Poppins and The Magic School Bus’ Mrs. Frizzle—two adults who had an intuitive knack for guiding children in the right direction to help them make good choices in life. Because I didn’t want Mrs. Petrowski’s presence to overpower Katie’s voice (after all, this was Katie’s personal journal), I assigned her the role of a behind-the-scenes mentor, helping Katie learn the important skills she needed to be a better friend.
TCBR: Mrs. Petrowski helps Katie to contemplate her actions with her inspirational “Think About It” cards. One card has a quote of Mother Teresa, which says, “One of the greatest diseases is to be a nobody to somebody.” Can you tell us why you feel this is important for children to think about?
TL: Kids are social people. They want to connect with their peers and feel valued and appreciated for who they are. When a child intentionally ignores others or treats them as if they have no intrinsic value, he/she is belittling or devaluing their very existence. As Mother Teresa’s quote infers, no person is inconsequential. Every person has value. I want kids to understand that while we all may not agree with each other’s opinions, while we all may not end up being friends, we all deserve to have our presence acknowledged and be treated in a civil and respectful manner. Everybody is a somebody, plain and simple.
TCBR: You are quoted saying “Well-written children’s literature has the power to foster empathy and perspective in young readers. And, frankly, our world could use a heck of a lot more empathy and perspective when it comes to tolerance, diversity, and acceptance of others.” What books would you recommend to read to a younger child who has not yet entered school to foster empathy?
TL: Some of my favorite picks for preschoolers are:
Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi
Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose
The Little Bit Scary People by Emily Jenkins
Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley by Aaron Blabey
Have You Filled a Bucket Today? By Carol McCloud
One by Kathryn Otoshi
Something Else by Kathryn Cave
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
Stop Picking on Me: A First Look at Bullying by Pat Thomas
Words Are Not for Hitting by Elizabeth Verdick
TCBR: My sense is that the message of some books can be easily missed unless the parent/teacher offers the children a chance to talk about the issues and feelings the story raises. I know that you stress the importance of generating discussions with our children and include questions in back of all of your books. Can you give some basic guidelines for discussion for books that don’t?
TL: If a children’s book doesn’t include discussion questions, I recommend visiting the author’s or publisher’s website. Many of these websites have ready-made lesson plans for parents, counseling professionals, and teachers to access. Also, try doing a google search by entering the title of the book, followed by the words lesson plans. (I’ve actually done this with the titles of my own books and have found some great lesson plans and activities!)
If you come up empty on your Internet searches for discussion questions for a particular book, Multnomah County Library’s “Universal Questions” (http://www.multcolib.org/talk/universalquestions.html) provides a list of general questions you can use. Another great option is to start your own kids’ book club with other parents and their kids. LitKids (http://www.litlovers.com/litkids.htm), for example, shows you how to set up a book club and provides book discussion questions to help you get started for kids in Pre-K through Grade 12.
TCBR: Is there anything else that you wish to share with readers?
TL: I wrote Confessions of a Former Bully to generate thoughtful conversations with kids and adults about bullying and what it means to be a good friend. This book is also a call to action for adults to step up and make a positive difference in the lives of targets, bystanders, and aggressors. Bullying is abuse and it requires adult intervention. That’s why I’ve included in the back of the book additional information and resources to help adults in their efforts to create safer school climates.
To learn more about Trudy Ludwig, visit: www.trudyludwig.com