Perplexed, Puzzled and Perturbed


Happy New Year!

This is a follow up, a continuation of my last post. It’s the last time I bitch about this, I promise.

I’m perplexed.

I’ve been told, several times, that the main character in my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, is unlikeable. His attitude on entering his new shcool, the way he sees the other students as beneath him, his swagger and unrelenting meaness make him unrelatable. I need to soften him up, give him reasons for his bullying. Give him heart, so readers can accept and root for him.

When I started this book, I wanted Alex to be unlikeable. So, when he becomes the bullied, the reader doesn’t immediately sympathize with him. I have done as agents and several readers suggested. I have smoothed the rough edges and given him the motivation needed to explain his actions.

Then a book on a store shelf caught my attention — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully. The cover seemed to suggest that it could be similar, if not spot on, to Alex Bullied.

I bought the book and read it. It’s written in comic book style — the text looks handwritten and the story is told with drawings. It is set to resemble a journal.

The kid writing the journal is a bully in the first degree. He’s been caught dunking a smaller student head-first in a toilet. His mother is furious, his principal is at his wit’s end. So he is forced to see a therapist who insists he keep a journal and write down his feelings, to get to the root of his aggression.

His journal, instead, is a how-to manual for bullying. This kid is unrepentant. he glories in his bullying. In the end he’s as big a jerk as when the book began. I never had any sympathy or empathy for him. I never cared about him at all.

Not at all like Alex Bullied. Alex changes over the course of my story. He comes to understand that what he’s done is wrong and he’s sorry.

So I’m puzzled.

The author of Journal of a Schoolyard Bully is Farley Katz, an American humorist and a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker. This is his first book, followed by a sequel — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully: Cyberbully. I didn’t read that one but I’ll take a guess that this time around we’ll learn how to bully online.

Agents and editors are more forgiving of an author with an established name, I assume. Even if writing cartoons is his primary expertise. I say this with all due respect for Mr. Katz.

I’m just perturbed.

Maybe it’s true that an as-yet-unpublished writer cannot defy conventions, although I’m a bit confused as to what the conventions are.

I will stand by the revisions I made. I like this warmer, baffled, reactionary Alex. He does seem more fleshed out. By the end of the story, he has a change of heart. And the story does not glorify bullying.

Querying begins again in a few weeks. Stay tuned.