Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

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