Review: TWERP by Mark Goldblatt

twerpHow many times have we witnessed kids picking on one another verbally or physically and, when challenged about it, defending themselves by saying, “It’s a joke,” or “We’re just kidding around”? In Twerp, Mark Goldblatt shows how “just kidding around” can become something much uglier.

Julian Twerski, aka Twerp, makes a deal with his English teacher, Mr. Selkirk: If Julian writes stories about himself and his friends, he can avoid writing a report about Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. So Julian writes about whatever comes to his mind, which is usually stories about how his friends manipulate him. They consider it no big deal, and although Julian doesn’t like it, he mostly accepts it. Then Julian uses his writing talents to help one of his friends trick a girl into liking him. Julian doesn’t intend any harm, but when things get messy, he realizes that a lot of kids in his social circle are using whatever power they have to coerce others into serving them in some way.

Throughout his writing, Julian avoids telling the story of what happened with Danley Dimmel, although he self-consciously mentions this avoidance several times. Instead, Julian explains episode after episode of what we might call bullying-lite. The stories seem to be “just kids being kids,” but as they accumulate, we see that sometimes Julian is the victim and sometimes he’s the perpetrator. This is business as usual for the kids in his New York neighborhood. Eventually the story of Danley Dimmel is presented, and we see kids become overtly mean as they mistreat a mentally challenged young man from their block. The Danley Dimmel episode is more intense than the other situations Julian relates, but we see that it arises from those same manipulative, competitive impulses.

Twerp takes place in 1969, and unchecked power was an underlying theme in the news of the day. Julian pays a kind of limited attention to what’s going on in the news, but he starts connecting the dots. He eventually sees that even the events of Julius Caesar relate to pressuring others into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t consider.

Mark Goldblatt’s Twerp is an important new contribution to YA literature focused on bullying. Through the carefully ordered presentation of episodes and skillful integration of cultural references, readers come to understand that full-blown bullying is different from peer pressure and manipulation only by degree.

The characters in Twerp are in fifth through eighth grade, and this story is well-suited for both boys and girls in this age group. It should work well for book circles, individual reading choices, or as a whole-class novel.

Twerp will be published by Random House Books for Young Readers and is scheduled for release on May 28, 2013.

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