Online bullying. Computer hackers. Facebook and Twitter. Being a kid today means fitting into new groups, not only in-person but via social media. The Internet can make navigating these rites of passage easier, but also harder.
These are the issues explored in author Joe Lawlor’s middle-grade mystery Bully.com. In the book, a thirteen-year-old detective named Jun Li is accused of a crime he didn’t commit — a cyberbullying crime. To clear his name, Jun launches an investigation that includes hackers, a jealous boyfriend, and other students in his middle school who are also victims of bullying.
The result? A story perfect for kids who love kid-centric mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown.
Bully.com has been gathering steam since its release in April. Kirkus Reviews calls it “well-plotted” and “clever.” Kid Lit Reviews lauds Lawlor for nailing “middle school student behavior.”
I’m a writer colleague of Lawlor’s where we both live in Somerville, Mass., and I recently had a chance to ask the author some questions about Bully.com, why he wrote it, his experience as a teacher, his own writer journey, and any advice for aspiring writers jonesing to write their own young adult or middle-grade work of fiction.
GeekDad: What was the genesis of this book?
Joe Lawlor: Growing up on Long Island with three sisters, I was a skinny, shy kid, more comfortable conversing with my action figures than my friends. I was an easy target for bullies. Thankfully, I knew who the bullies were, and I was (for the most part) able to avoid them.
Today’s world is different. With the rise of social media, bullying no longer ends at the playground. The taunts and jeers I ran away from at school are now present when kids open their laptops to do homework or check their text messages. Cyber bullies are anonymous or masquerading as someone kids think they know. When a cyberbully strikes, everyone in school is a suspect, which for a mystery writer, is an interesting place to begin a story.
GeekDad: Where did you get the idea for a shy but brilliant and geeky computer-oriented kid who is falsely accused of something he did not do and has to track down the perpetrators to prove his innocence?
Lawlor: Jun is an amalgamation of the sixth-grade students I’ve taught over the years. He is painfully shy and I liked the conflict created when he is thrust into the role of detective where he has to interview kids, parents, and teachers. Jun has a brilliant mind, but sometimes he gets lost “upstairs”. He misses social cues that are obvious to his less-brilliant peers. Chris Pine, Jun’s best friend, has described Jun as “the smartest dumb person I know.”
GeekDad: Talk about the title Bully.com and bullying. Do you witness bullying as a teacher?
Lawlor: As a sixth grade teacher, I deal with the issue of bullying on a daily basis. Bullies are smart. They do not torment their victims in the classroom. They fly under the radar, bullying in the hallways, in the lunch room, or on the school bus. It’s hard, even for a veteran teacher like myself, to catch bullies at their worst.
Cyber bullying complicates the situation. Cyber bullying often takes place off school grounds, and yet the school’s teachers and administrative staff must deal with the emotional impact of such attacks. To be an effective advocate for children, teachers must be equal parts police officer and social worker.
GeekDad: You’re male and white, and your protagonist Jun Li is Asian-American. Can you explain the choice of making character so different from your background and personal experience? Or is he not all that different from yourself?
Lawlor: When creating characters, writers often infuse aspects of their own personality into their creations. Despite the difference in our skin color, Jun and I are very much alike. We are both natural introverts; we both apologize for things that aren’t necessarily our fault; and we both have a tendency to hyper focus on what’s in front of us. That last quality is what makes me a writer and Jun an effective detective.
: Talk about your writer journey — how long have you been writing?
Lawlor: Prior to the publication of Bully.com, I wrote nine novels for kids over the course of fifteen years. Dozens of agents and publishers rejected my work. Over the years, I’d given up on writing five or six times. Even for a person with a healthy sense of self-esteem, all that rejection is emotionally deflating. And yet, I found I could never stop. An interesting idea would lodge in my brain, and though I tried to ignore it, it would whisper to me, until I eventually found myself back at the computer, typing away. I don’t write because I like to; I write because I feel compelled to. When I’m not writing, my life feels incomplete.
GeekDad: Were you a writer as a kid? A bookish kid?
Lawlor: Growing up, I was a reluctant reader. For a long time, reading was more a source of frustration than enjoyment. Thankfully, high-interest titles like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, fantasy books like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and sci-fi novelizations of the Star Trek television series captured my attention. Truth be told, I’m still a slow reader, but I’ve come to see it as a blessing. While my wife gobbles up entire books in a single evening, my eyes march slowly across the page, taking in every word. This methodical approach, I believe, has allowed me to absorb more of the author’s craft.
GeekDad: How hard was it to find a publisher?
Lawlor: The world of children’s books is very competitive. Luckily, cyber bullying is a hot topic right now, and the novel is geared toward boys. Those two factors allowed my manuscript to be rescued from the slush pile.
GeekDad: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who’d like to publish a young adult or middle-grade book?
Lawlor: First, read. Read as many books as possible written for your target age group. Second, spend time with kids. Drink in their energy, their insecurities, and their silly sense of humor. Learn their language and their tribal customs, so when it comes time to write, you’ll hear their voices inside your head.
GeekDad: What’s your hope for kids who read this? What message or experince do you want them to have with your novel?
Lawlor: In my novel, Jun becomes an accidental detective, forced to interview a series of suspects to find the school’s true cyberbully and clear his own name. The suspects are an unsavory group — mean girls, knuckle-dragging bullies, and tech-savvy kids. However, Jun finds that his biases and preconceptions about these individuals slip away once he learns more about who they are. In general, bullies call attention to the things that separate their victims from the group, but when Jun brings people together, they find their commonalities outnumber their differences.
GeekDad: Anything else you’d like to add, comment on, plug, etc?
Lawlor: I have recently been invited to speak at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I’ll do an hour presentation on my novel and bullying-related issues. I’m very excited for this engagement as they have asked that the entire student body to read my book over the summer!
To read more about Joe Lawlor, Bully.com, and upcoming events, visit joelawlorbooks.com.