Interview Listen In: Award-Winning Author David Levithan Speaks about Bullying

I recently sat down with David Levithan to discuss bullying, his bestselling titles Every Day and Two Boys Kissing, which was a Lambda Literary Award winner and a Stonewall Honor Book.

Listen in as we discuss how David’s audiobooks are the perfect entry way for both parents and educators to open up a dialogue, with students and listeners, since he creates thought-provoking titles that touch on gender, romance, and the complexities of life.

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LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW Emily Bazelon Interview

Here is a full transcript of our discussion:

Have you ever been bullied or witnessed something that you incorporated into your writing?

Like most kids I certainly had bullied experiences, especially in junior high school. There were a couple of kids who liked to spit upon me, yell at me, call me different names, etc, etc, etc. I certainly took some solace in being the smart kid but that wasn’t enough to stop them from picking on me. And certainly I saw my friends go through this as well and that informs what I write about and what the characters I write about go through. But I think really the important thing to realize and something that came up a lot when I was asked to write about bullying for an Anthology called The Letter Q, is the fact that it’s not really an either/or. As many times as I can think that I was bullied, I can also think of times where I was a bully—where I picked on somebody or came up with a snide name for somebody else or liked to just sort of push the button that I knew the person didn’t want to be pushed. So I think that it’s important for me when writing characters and thinking about bullying to think that everybody has the potential to be both the bully and the bullied and that you really are making choices in different situations for different roles.

I believe in the power of books and audiobooks as a positive force in kids’ lives. Do you think your books help kids and if so, how?

Well certainly I hear a lot from readers and so I can have a sense of what books can do—not just my books but the books that all of my fellow authors write. I think one of the worst things about bullying is how isolating it is. That when you’re picked upon, you don’t want to talk about it with other people, you think you’re the only one being picked upon and it just feels like there’s nobody you can really relate to and nobody really relating to you. You feel that the bully is really the one with the power and the one that everybody is going to relate to. And I think the power of books is that they can make you feel less isolated. That reading a book that has something you’re going through can really make you realize that other people go through it. And if this adult you’ve never met, in this place you’ve never been, is writing about this in a way that you relate to then you know that it’s not just you. And if you read about kids who are going through other things that aren’t the things that you’re going through you also get a sense of what everybody else is up against. And know that even if you’re the only one facing your particular thing in your particular place, that there are other kids going through other things and you have to really team up with them and not feel quite so isolated.

I’m sure you receive lots of fan mail, have you received letters from teens who are being bullied? If so, how do you respond to them?

Yeah. Sometimes I do hear from kids who are being bullied—mostly for being gay or lesbian or bisexual, transgender. And it’s a really, really, tough thing to go through and I think it’s really caught up in all of these identity issues in feeling alone and feeling unsupported and being picked upon while you’re feeling alone and unsupported. So the first thing I always tell these kids is to talk to somebody. That the odds are very good in their life that there is somebody who will understand what they’re going through. And if they’ve tried talking to somebody, whether a parent or a teacher or a guidance counselor or a friend, and it hasn’t felt or they don’t feel that it’s gone the right way, then they should talk to somebody else. And try to look for other people. A lot of the times they feel very safe talking to an author at a remove by an email because we’re not in their lives. But because we’re not in their lives we really can’t tell them what to do in the way that a responsible person who knows them or knows their life can do. Another thing I keep telling them is to keep perspective that a lot of us went through bullying and a lot of us were picked upon and a lot of us questioned our identity when we’re younger and we got through it. And that the most important thing sometimes is just to hold on. That if you think your situation is just not changeable and that your life will never, ever change—there are millions of us who’s lives didn’t seem like they would change and then they changed. So sometimes when you are being bullied you don’t have that perspective but eventually you get to grow up and you get to leave. And the world is a better place.

Gay, lesbian, and transgender students are five times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation. One of the reasons the main characters in Two Boys Kissing decide to break the world record for longest continuous kiss is a reaction to a homophobic attack against their friend Tariq. Can you talk about how this feeling of a lack of safety comes into the book?

When I was writing Two Boys Kissing, I knew that the central event of the book would be based on a true story which is that two boys in New Jersey beat the world record for longest continuous kiss by kissing for over 32 hours as a way of protesting inequality in my home state of New Jersey. So when thinking about turning this into a fictional event, the question kept coming up of “Why would they do this? What would be the inciting incident?” And what I kept coming back to and thinking about what gay kids are up against today was the idea of being bullied or being attacked. And that while certainly it gets better and certainly it is better now than it’s ever been in America, there are still times where you are picked upon and you are called names or you are actually physically attacked and I certainly have friends who’ve been through that. But I think, partially from having friends who’ve been through that and partially witnessing other people, I see how the lowest of the lows can lead to the bravest of the heights. That often when something really awful happens to us, we don’t react in fear or weakness, we actually find a strength that we didn’t know we had. And I think for the main characters of Two Boys Kissing, they see the strength that Tariq has after being attacked and they want to share that strength with the world and really find that strength for themselves and find a way to show it to everybody else. And that is why they kissed for as long as they do. And it does have the reaction that they want to get.

How do you research your characters—for example, “A” embodied 41 different people. Was that a challenge?

It’s one of these really interesting things that should have seemed obvious when I was writing the book but only seemed obvious after I wrote the book. What “A “does in Every Day, waking up every day in a different body in a different life and really having to navigate that life for a very short time before moving on is a lot like what authors do. We write books to create these fictional people, live in their lives for a little bit, see the world through their eyes, and then we leave. And I think it was a challenge certainly in Every Day to have “A” be in so many different lives and so many different bodies but at the same time it was just a variation of what I usually do as an author. I think the most successful writing is about empathy. We can’t just write about what we know—we have to write about what we see, what we feel and the commonality we feel with other people. So I think that the way that “A” navigates is really the way authors navigate. And the things that “A” discovers are the things that authors discover by trying on different people’s shoes and walking in them for a little bit and realizing the similarities we really have even though we seem different at first.

Every Day is a great book to use in the classroom or for a family with teenagers to listen to together. It offers the opportunity to start a dialogue about bullying since “A” inhabits the bodies of many different individuals and personalities. Entertainment Weekly raved, “Every Day has the power to teach a bully empathy by answering an essential question: What’s it like to be you and not me—even if it’s just for one day.” Please discuss this facet of the story.

One of the things that surprised me while writing Every Day is that, when I first approached the character of “A” I thought, “Oh, ‘A’ is going to navigate by just realizing all the differences between people and is going to be shocked every day by how different people are.” But while I started writing the book I realized that this was actually the opposite of the truth. That the way that “A” could navigate through all of these different lives and all these different bodies and have an understanding of who these people were was by finding the commonality, was by saying, you know, even though this person looks very different or seems to have a very different life, 98% of the time we have very similar emotions, we have very similar fears, we have very similar desires. And thus, “A” really does navigate the world. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about the book and the reaction to the book is that people do read it and they do realize that even if they were in another body, even if they were in somebody else’s shoes that they have enough in common with that person that they would understand it and they would be able to in some way feel what that person feels. And I think that is a powerful statement that we do think of bullies as being an “other” and as being somebody who isn’t like us just as the bullies look at somebody who they are bullying and think, oh, this person is somehow less or somehow different in a bad way. But if we really focus on the things we have in common and we don’t emphasize all of the differences and use the differences for divisiveness instead of community, then really we do lead to empathy and we do have an understanding that hopefully makes the world easier to navigate for everybody involved.

In Every Day, “A” enters the body of a bully, Vanessa. What inspired you to write that character? And, what did you hope the reader would take away from that section?

The way I wrote Every Day was really just: every day “A” wakes up in a different body and encounters a different thing. And for me as a writer, every chapter I would go, “OK. Who’s body is ‘A’ going to be in next?” And the morning “A” wakes up as Vanessa, I was like, “OK. Who is this girl?” And I realized that that one type of person that I had not talked about was somebody who really enjoys the power she has over other people. And that “A” being in that life for a day would see that the way that everybody else reacted to this girl was really, really nervous and wary. And that while through her eyes she might think she was getting their respect and think that they were her followers and think that she was adored. Really, “A” through her eyes realizes that no—these people are really afraid of her. They’re afraid of the next word that will come out of her mouth. They are afraid she’s going to attack them. They are afraid that the power she uses is always used against them and not for them. And I think it’s a really important thing to sort of step back and see. That even if you are the popular one and even if you are the bully or if you are somebody who has a large amount of power, you have to ask yourself, “Well, why do I have this power? What is making these people want to listen to me?” And that, if they’re listening to you because you’re their friend and you’re a good friend and you’re supportive of them and you’re fighting on their behalf—that’s one thing. And you’ll get a really great feeling from that. But if they’re following you because they are afraid not to follow you, that’s quite a different thing and that’s going to turn against you. So “A” feels very uncomfortable that day—almost one of the most uncomfortable days “A” has—because everything is under the surface. And “A” knows that Vanessa when she’s in her body doesn’t see these things because she is so caught up in herself. But when “A” is in her body looking out “A” realizes all these things and sees how wrong this power dynamic is.

To find more anti-bullying content visit www.thebullyconversation.com.
David’s books are available from Random House Children’s Books and Scholastic.

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