Letters to a Bullied Girl: Messages of Healing and Hope

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Letters to a Bullied Girl: Messages of Healing and Hope Book Poster Image
Heartfelt letters to cyberbullied teen inspire compassion.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Teaches kids the power of the written word to help heal wounds, and the power of a teen-powered grassroots campaign to do something good for another kid who is a total stranger. It also gives kids a deeper understanding of bullying and the lasting psychological damage it can do, as well as many examples of the resilience of the human spirit.

Positive Messages

The teen sisters who started the positive letter-writing campaign for  Olivia demonstrate a great act of kindness for a total stranger. (They don't meet Olivia until three months into the campaign.) Letters pour in from people all over the country -- many from former bullies -- showing tremendous compassion and empathy. The letter writers -- most who have been targets of bullies, and some former bullies themselves -- offer positive messages of hope and understanding, and an assurance that "it gets better."

Positive Role Models & Representations

The sisters do not stand by when they learn about what happened to Olivia. They mobilize a letter-writing campaign for a total stranger, out of the goodness of their hearts. "We ... wanted to let her know that that she was not alone and that there were kids out there in the world who would be happy to be her friend," the sisters write in an Author's Note. Olivia is a positive role model, too, because she doesn't give up.

Violence

Some incidents of pushing and shoving are described in the letters, including one in which an overweight boy with thick glasses is pushed into a pile of dog manure. Some letter writers recall being kicked, punched, or beat up. And some have their lunches smashed or backpacks dragged through the mud (as Olivia's was). But most of the anecdotes involve verbal abuse, threats, mocking, and taunting.

Sex

There are some mentions of being bullied for being gay.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the letters in this book describe incidents of bullying, including cyberbullying and gay bashing as well as conventional mean-girl behavior and schoolyard taunting, threats, and humiliation -- mostly verbal but some physical. The letters are heartfelt, candid, and loving as the writers of all ages draw from their own experiences of bullying -- as target, bully, or bystander -- to encourage Olivia, the bullied girl of the title, to have hope and not give up.

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What's the story?

Two sisters in Marin County, CA, read a newspaper story about a girl named Olivia whose life was ruined by cyberbullying. Singled out as \"different\" after she had a seizure at her middle school, she was taunted by classmates who dragged her backpack through the mud, wore \"I Hate Olivia\" bracelets, and created an \"Olivia Haters\" web page on MySpace. The sisters were so moved after they read about this that they mobilized a letter-writing campaign called \"Olivia's Letters,\" asking people to write to her at a P.O. box they set up and let her know she is not alone and not to give up hope. Their goal was to get 50 letters form their high school and neighboring schools. After a month they had 500. After some media attention, more than 4,000 poured in. The book presents a selection of them, written by people of all ages from all over the country -- some former bullies themselves-- who share their personal stories of pain, resilience, and hope.

Is it any good?

This is a profound testament to compassion of the two teenage sisters who started the letter-writing campaign, the kindness of strangers, and a substantive expose of how hurtful bullying can be. Most striking are the letters from older people who clearly still feel the sting of of schoolyard harassment decades later. A foreword clearly and succinctly explains the different types of bullying, the psychological motivation behind the cruel behavior, and the roles of each person in the bullying dynamic: the target, the bully, and the bystander.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what it feels like to be bullied, and what to do if one sees someone being bullied to not be a bystander but to stand up for what's right. Check out our article Bullying is Everybody's Business to see how everyone plays a role when bullying occcurs.

  • Olivia experienced cyberbullying when her classmates created an "Olivia Haters" website. What other ways do kids cyberbully people? Has it every happened to you? Is it as bad or worse than regular in-person bullying? (Check out 5 Things to Know About Cyberbullying and our Digital Harassment Tips.)

  • What was it in the letters Olivia got from strangers that gave her hope and made her feel better? What do you think was the main message she got from them?

Book details

For kids who love learning about cyberbullying

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