I love writing books for American Girl readers. A few years back, when my editor asked me to write JESS, I knew I was going to write about a girl who goes somewhere out the country with her archeologist parents. More recently, when I was asked to write Chrissa, I knew I would be writing a story that dealt with bullying.
Whether I start a story with a few guidelines, or completely from my own imagination, what I write must ultimately come from my heart. I must create characters I care about. Ten year-old Chrissa Maxwell is generous, creative, and somewhat shy and I plopped her in a challenging situation: she moves from Iowa to Minnesota and starts mid-year at a new school, landing in a four-desk cluster with girls who are really good at bullying.
So what personal experiences did I draw on to write Chrissa and Chrissa Stands Strong?
Not a single child grows up without either experiencing or witnessing bullying, and I was no exception. In fourth grade, my best friend moved away. We’d been childhood best friends and I felt incredibly lonely without her. To fill the void, I became friends with a girl who was mean to me and to others. When I decided I couldn’t be friends anymore and stepped off the bus for school one morning, her older sister pushed me down on the sidewalk. My knees were raw and sore, but my feelings were hurt more deeply. It took me a few years to find my way after that. I had to learn what it meant to stand up.
Anyone who isn’t the direct victim of teasing is relieved it’s “not them.” But sometimes in the effort to not be at the bottom of the pecking order, it wasn’t always easy to speak out against bullying when I witnessed it.
With regrets, I also remember taking part in a teasing incident. When a charismatic boy suggested I put an icicle down the back of another boy on the bus, I did it. I got caught up in feeling included in what I thought was just a “fun” prank. But when the boy who had trusted me turned around and saw that I had taken part in the teasing, I felt terrible. The hurt on his face still haunts me. Yes, it added up to a few good laughs at the time. But I’ve regretted that action ever since.
After that, I was better at making decisions based on my own values and less on the pressure of peers. This personal experience, however, helped me to write Chrissa in a way that made a sometimes black-and-white issue a little more complicated. Chrissa, like me, is desperate for friendship. It’s her pain and loneliness that make her vulnerable, not only to teasing, but to possibly join up with bullying actions. I drew on many of my own feelings and inner conflict to write about a character who I hope is vulnerable and who readers can cheer for as she learns to stand up for herself and for others.
I drew not only on my own childhood memories, but also the more recent memories of witnessing my daughter’s painful experiences with classmates. It seemed she and her supposed girlfriends were continually make each other cry. When I talked to the principal about the problem and with teachers, back then the general answer was that “girls will be girls” and “they all go through this.”
I wish I’d known as a child and as a parent what I know now. I’ve learned through research and talking with experts that bullying exists because we tolerate it. I’ve learned that by taking a stand against cruelty toward others–puts a stop to it. And I’ve learned that by making individuals accountable for their actions—by making it right with others—we can help them move beyond bullying to healthier relationships and communities.
I’m passionate about this issue. I remember when my own daughter left her high school to attend an arts high school her junior and senior year. For the first time in years she wasn’t put down for using a big vocabulary or for being bright or pretty. Instead she found a supportive, nurturing atmosphere. She said, “Mom, the big difference is everyone is for everyone.”
I hope that with increased awareness of bullying that we begin to change how we interact as a society. My hope is that increasingly, at homes and schools, we will be a people where individuals feel less pitted against each other and instead where kids grow up being taught and believing that “everyone is for everyone.”
My hope is that girls will relate to Chrissa and her struggle to stand tall. Along with a good story, I hope readers take away skills for how to deal with bullying in their own lives. Chrissa struggles to stand up for what’s right, but she eventually does. She learns to speak up against bullying and to be an advocate for others. She also learns that she can’t always solve problems on her own and the story makes it clear that there are times when we need to enlist the help of family and others. Telling the truth can often become confused with tattling, and Chrissa learns that tattling is about bringing someone else down, where as “telling” to protect someone is different—and often a brave thing to do.