BULLY by James Scott, BULLIED by Ryan Call

I just finished reading this little bullyrocking gem of wondrous heartbreaking goodness from The Cupboard, which everyone should just automatically go ahead and subscribe to because they knock it out of the ballpark every damn time. (My past favorite is Michael Stewart’s beautifully written, gorgeously designed A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic, with Tricks You Can Do At Home!)

Bully, by James Scott, is the story of Nick Gradowski, son of old man Gradowski and younger brother of Dennis Gradowski. This is what you need to know about the Gradowskis:

“The Gradowskis are big people. [. . .] On the first day of second grade, my teacher had to have the janitor bring a desk from the other side of the school–where the sixth graders were–and she told me, ‘Some day it will be nice to be so big.’ And she smiled until I wanted to hug her and tell her my mother had left and ask her if she would please come home with me because my father’s cooking stank, all our clothes stank, and any hard to reach place in our house stank.”

Alternatively, Bullied, by Ryan Call, is the story of Jeremy Haskins, the object of big Nick Gradowski’s bullying. This is the first thing you need to know about Jeremey Haskins: After he turns in Nick Gradowski, his lab partner, for cheating, he apologizes meekly. Nick Gradowski responds, “Go fuck yourself.” And Jeremy Haskins’s first thought?

“Oh, he had a coarse tongue, this one did!”

This is the second thing you need to know about Jeremy Haskins:  After Nick Gradowski returns from his out-of-school suspension, Jeremy Haskins becomes Enemy Number One:

“The usual sorts of abuse followed, and I could do nothing but suffer: wedgies, textbook tosses, body slams, belt and backpack tugs. My locker became a kind of depository for Nick Gradowski and his friends. They stuffed into its dark space all manner of terrible objects: soiled tissue paper, lunchtray scrapings, busted ink pens, a dead bird. I suspect they rigged some sort of funneling device to allow them to pour liquids through the vents of my locker, so I took to lining my backpack with a heavy-duty kitchen trash bag, and I tucked my textbooks into the durable sleeves of those industrial strength re-sealable freezer bags. This could not rid my possessions of the piss-stink, but it did protect my careful schoolwork, which I cringingly submitted to my various teachers, worried they would think me incontinent.”

It isn’t often readers get to read, side-by-side, the two different points of view of two very different characters whose lives are so intertwined. I’ll be honest, though: I didn’t. First I read Nick Gradowski’s story. These appear on all the left-hand pages of this tiny amazing little book. After I finished Bully, I moved on to Bullied. Actually, before I started reading Bullied, I wasn’t necessarily sure that the story would be connected at all. For some reason I thought they were just two different stories. I mean, they are. But I thought there wasn’t necessarily any overlap. But there is! And then I got to read the entirety of Jeremy Haskins’s story.

These two voices, these two writers, have accomplished something incredible. By combining their talents, by interlacing these two experiences–the bully, the bullied–this little book just may have the potential to change things.

If you have ever been bullied, read this book. If you have ever bullied, read this book. If you are the mother of someone who has been bullied, read this book. If you are the father of someone who has been bullied, read this book. If you are the mother or father of a bully, read this book.

Sure, there are undeniable stereotypes in these two stories: the bully comes from a broken home and he’s big; the bullied has caring parent-figures and is a total nerdschmuck. But the world is full of broken homes and straight-A bookworms. The world is full of pain that not even a handjob can take away (here I’m referring to Nick Gradowski’s lady friend’s, um, services). The world is full of pain that not receiving a handjob only makes worse (here I’m referring to Nick Gradowski’s lady friend, who hates Jeremy Haskins, and of course Jeremy Haskins would die happy and go to Heaven if only Nick Gradowski’s lady friend were not Nick Gradowski’s lady friend but Jeremy Haskins’s lady friend instead! Oh, the indignity!).

But my point is: this book has something to teach us about stereotypes. It has something to teach us about idly standing by while those around us are hurting. I think our sons and daughters will gain something from it, whether or not we as parents want them to read about handjobs or broken homes. Kids are different these days; they’ve seen things on TV and the Internet that we never did at their ages. A book like this could change their world. (Here I should mention that I am not actually a parent myself, but I use “we” because aren’t all children “our” children? If we care about youth at all, we should take ownership of their strengths and failures alike. We should do something.)

All this said, I highly recommend Bully/Bullied. And I highly recommend subscribing to The Cupboard, because their fantastic little books are wonderfully and consistently on fire.

Well done, James Scott.

Well done, Ryan Call.

Thank you both for writing such beautiful, culturally and socially relevant, important stories.

Steven Karl’s Best of 2009

Here’s a makeshift list for 09.

2009 was a great year for chapbooks.¬† A couple of presses released multiple titles that I devoured such as BraveMenPress which released Janaka Stucky’s Your Name Is The Only Freedom, Chris Toneli’s No Theater, and Julia Cohen’s For The H In Ghost.
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New from The Cupboard

A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic
by Michael Stewart
32 pages. Tape-bound.

Every illusion carries a price and no one is more aware of that than the wondrous, tragic magicians detailed here. They know darkness that leaves scars. They know failure that gives birth to terrible life. They know their journey is one of haunting, their competition one that doesn’t end with this world. Did it never occur to us they keep their tricks a secret to protect us?

Plus tricks you can do at home!

(You should never do these tricks at home.)