For a while there, a year or two ago, we saw a handful of authors in the realm of picture books jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That is, it was a hot topic in schools, many of them launching expensive campaigns to address it with children and teens. Some picture books that showed up during this time were better than others; Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is a story that haunts me to this day, and one got the sense that Woodson wasn’t merely responding to educational trends of any sort. (She has, after all, written many books in her career that address injustice and power plays in the lives of children.)
There’s a new one on shelves, explicitly about bullying, that I also think gets it right. It was originally published in Belgium two years ago and arrived on shelves here in the States last month. Red, written and illustrated by Jan De Kinder, skips right over the reasons for playground bullying—as in, no deep-seated psychology is going on here—but instead focuses on one girl’s gumption in standing up to it.
The story is pretty straightforward: A boy named Tommy is teased on the playground for his blushing face. The red cheeks first appear when he’s talking to the narrator, a young girl who notices it and points it out to him. It’s not clear why he blushes, but perhaps he even has a crush on her. She notes to herself that it’s “no big deal” and that she’s the first person to see it, but the mention of it makes him uncomfortably self-conscious, thereby making him blush even more.
Innocently, the girl winks at another kid, who then winks at another, and so on…until nearly everyone is staring at him. One particularly aggressive boy, named Paul, gets louder and more abrasive in his bullying, and our narrator just wants the teasing to stop. “I’m scared of Paul,” the girl notes. “His tongue is as sharp as a knife. And his fist is as hard as a brick.…There’s no way I can stand up to him on my own.” Eventually, Tommy’s on the ground, blood on his knee, Paul lording over him as if he’s captured his prey. “What I want to do is scream really loud,” the girl says. “But I stay silent.” Later, though, when the teacher asks if anyone witnessed what happened on the playground, the girl finds her courage and raises her hand, inspiring other classmates to do the same.
The book’s illustrations are particularly outstanding; they pulse with red hues and captivate with shadows. De Kinder communicates a great deal with color and body language. In one spread the boy stands in the center, his entire body growing increasingly red, while the students staring at him—particularly those at the outer edge of the circle—are charcoal smudges, nearly amorphous and blending together in all his humiliation and worry. In the next spread, he takes up merely the bottom right portion of the page, yet dominating the spread are enlarged images of the children, who are morphing into vicious creatures, all grey shadows. When the narrator speaks of her fear of Paul and his vicious wit, he is depicted as a colossal sort of animal with sharp teeth, nearly taking up the entire spread.
During the dramatic moment when the girl raises her hand, the spread is awash in the vibrant red that dominates the book. She may be dealing with her own embarrassment and struggles, but her white shirt and finger pointing straight up in the air are indications that the troubles will pass—signs of hope, to be sure. Sure enough, a few spreads later, De Kinder brings readers soft greens and touches of yellow, as the girl approaches Tommy to tell him, essentially, that to be human is to occasionally blush.
It’s not a story breaking any new ground, by any means, and it has a pretty clear-cut message about kindness (some might call it didactic), but the beguiling artwork and pulsing heart at the story’s center provide much food-for-thought—not to mention an opportunity for children to put themselves into the shoes of the bystander of a cruel act, which surely happens on playgrounds more than adults would care to admit.
Thoughtful and beautifully illustrated, it’s definitely one to look for.
RED. Text and illustrations © 2013 Jan De Kinder. First published in the United States in 2015 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. English language translation © 2015 Laura Watkinson. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.