Runt

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Runt Book Poster Image
Insightful look at school bullying sometimes hard to follow.

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

Educational value

Kids will learn about bullying in various forms, both in school and online. The bullies' points of view are represented, as are those of the underdogs, which shows kids that people aren't always all bad or all good, and that bullies and their victims have more in common than you'd think. Dog behavior is used as a metaphor for how humans get along, and the Afterword includes a short history of the domestication of dogs.

Positive messages

These sixth graders take for granted that old, fat, unpopular, and stupid are bad, and their opposites are desirable, as they struggle to learn what's important and what's worth striving or sacrificing for. All kinds of points of view are shown -- even the bullies become sympathetic characters, and underdogs make mistakes. People are multifaceted, and right and wrong are far from black and white. Middle school is presented as incredibly difficult and almost impossible to survive, which may increase younger readers' anxiety about it.

Positive role models & representations

All the children model both good and bad behavior. They're just regular kids trying to navigate the strange world of middle school. The heroes who emerge are those who let go of external pressures or make the right choice when the wrong one would be so much easier and more satisfying in the short term. Adults are peripheral, offering occasional cryptic advice or dispensing cruel justice within the school system, but Mrs. Robinson offers real help to Elizabeth at a crucial turning point.

Violence & scariness

There are two crucial incidents of punching: One character punches a dog in frustration, and another punches a bully hard enough to knock him down. The girl who punched the dog is immediately remorseful and apologizes to the dog, and the boy who fought back is suspended from school. Three incidents of violence in the animal kingdom are relayed, one resulting in a bloody wound to another animal that's not described. An incident at a zoo in which an otter drowns its monkey tormentor is scary but not gory. The book opens with a description of how dogs fight, but it's not graphic.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Runt explores bullying from all sides. Middle school life is far from black-and-white: Bad-guy bullies become sympathetic in the passages from their points of view, and good-guy underdogs sometimes make mistakes that hurt others, too. Some of the language might be strong for younger readers ("crap" and "jerk-off"). There are two main instances of punching that aren't very graphic or described in detail, but one past incident of violence among animals is horrific and might scare younger readers. Sex isn't really part of this world; the 10- to 12-year-olds are just becoming aware of physical attraction but don't act on it or display any understanding of it. But there's a hint that a "weird janitor" stalks one of the boys, and one boy's pants get pulled down at a school dance.

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What's the story?

A class of sixth graders tell their stories as they learn to navigate middle school. Popular Maggie resents smart Elizabeth, so she posts a fake profile page of Elizabeth as "Smelly Girl." Elizabeth has the perfect opportunity to exact revenge at the school dance, if she can bring herself to go through with it. Meanwhile basketball jock Stewart relentlessly bullies just about everyone. When Matthew finally has enough and strikes back, he's the one who suffers all the punishment. As the story unfolds from everyone's point of view, the kids struggle to find their places, learn to do what's right, and how to cope with the problems you can't change.

Is it any good?

RUNT relates two bullying incidents from many different points of view, but the voices aren't always distinctive enough to cue the reader as to who’s narrating, or who or what they're talking about. The confusion eventually sorts itself out, though, and the insights provided, both from the bullies, their victims, and the bystanders, are often surprising and worth waiting for.

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about bullying. How much bullying goes on in your school? Has it ever affected you or someone you know? What did you do?

  • Is what happens to Elizabeth (cyberbullying) different from how Stewart bullies Matthew? If it is, in what way? What's the same about both kinds of bullying?

  • What did you think about the part told by the dog? What things about how dogs relate to each other are like how people relate to each other other?

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