Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Why did you focus on the topic of bullying in your book?

Partly because I had an idea for a story that I liked, which involved some kids trying to investigate why the bullies in their lives act the way they do. The story behind The Revealers tells more about that.

Also, I was bullied pretty severely when I was in middle school, and I never forgot how that felt. I remembered being so scared to go to school in the morning, and then even more scared to come out of school at the end. I remembered the feeling in my stomach, and getting headaches every afternoon — as Russell does in The Revealers. I remembered feeling so isolated, because at that time in my life, I was.

I survived that time, and became a very tall grownup and a professional writer (see Meet Doug Wilhelm) — but I always remembered those experiences, and how they made me feel. When I started working on The Revealers, I drew on those memories. I don't think you can write a novel to solve anyone else's problems, or to tell them what to do — but I do think you can hope to write a story that connects with other people, and that might help them feel that they're not alone.

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Where did your idea for the book come from? Is it based on your own experiences? How did you research the story, and learn about all the different kinds of bullying that it portrays?

The story behind The Revealers explains these things.

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How about the characters? Where did they come from?

Great question! For my best answers, please see More about the characters.

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Most kids who are harassed feel isolated, but Russell, Elliot, and Catalina find strength in coming together, pursuing a "scientific approach," and ultimately, creating "The Darkland Revealer" — their e-mail bulletin. How did you conceive of this?

Being bullied can be so isolating. For me as a middle schooler, it was like living in darkness. I thought the idea of three kids taking a scientific approach to investigating the bullies in their lives (see The story behind The Revealers) could become a tale about coming out of that darkness, and about shining a light on what goes on inside so many young people's lives.

It took me a while to develop that idea into the whole novel. How did I get the notion of the kids in the book using their school's new computer network to tell the truth? Well ...

I knew that Dartmouth College, where I do some work as a writer, has a computer network that links up every student and faculty member. They were among the first colleges to develop a network like that. I also visited a school in Vermont that has a local area network, and saw how people used it. I was observing how often kids today use e-mail and instant messaging to communicate — and in my own work as a professional writer, I was often sending and receiving files attached to e-mail messages.

I just put those things together, and the story unfolded as I worked on it. I never have a book all mapped-out when I start ... I like to discover what's going to happen as I go along from day to day.

I wanted the kids in The Revealers to be using their minds and their creativity to change their situations of being bullied. As my story grew, I started to see how they could not just change their own situations — they could actually try to change the culture, the atmosphere, in their whole school. "Darkland" School starts as a place where bullying is tolerated, excused and ignored. What Russell, Elliot and Catalina do opens people's eyes to the kinds of damage that bullying can do, and how widespread it really is in their school. Again, I thought of this as taking something that has been hidden in darkness, and shining a bright light on it.

So to me, The Revealers isn't just about bullying or violence ... it's about what can happen if you bring something out of darkness, into the light.

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What did you notice about the roles of parents and teachers in dealing with this problem? In the book, even well-meaning parents and teachers seem to be unable to help, and Mrs. Capelli is in denial.

A lot of that came from my reading of books and articles about bullying. Research has shown that, while bullying happens pretty much everywhere, it tends to be at its worst in schools where the people in charge don't do much about it, make excuses when it happens, and try to ignore it whenever they can.

Is Mrs. Capelli, the principal who doesn't want to know about the problem in her school, a realistic character? I certainly don't mean that all principals, teachers or parents try to deny or ignore bullying. There are many, many adults, like the teacher Ms. Hogeboom and Russell's mom in the story, who see what happens and feel deeply about it, though they often don't know how to help or make a difference.

But I also learned that one of the biggest "bullying problems" is that so many grownups who could make a difference pretend, instead, that this stuff isn't happening or that it doesn't really matter. So I think Mrs. Capelli is realistic. A national expert on bullying recently told me that, in his experience, there are all too many Mrs. Capellis in our schools, even today.

In general, whether the adults in The Revealers are well-meaning or in denial, there is a communication gap between them and the kids. When the teachers or Russell's mom talk, the kids may hear them, but they're almost never directly listening ... and sometimes, as in Ms. Hogeboom's social studies class, the kids are talking on a level that the adult doesn't even know exists. That came through naturally, as I wrote the story, and I think it is natural.

I would especially point to the scene, in the big-crisis part of the story, where Mr. Dallas, who runs the school computer network, thanks Russell for talking things over with him — yet Russell hasn't said a word! It was just Mr. Dallas talking, then thinking he and Russell had had a conversation. I think if we adults want to understand and help kids who are going through bullying, or any other problem in their lives, we have to start by asking them questions and really listening to what they say. Much too often, we think we've had a good conversation with a young person when it's really just been us talking at them.

I include myself in this! I do it, too. My son would certainly tell you so!

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Bullying is an issue every generation faces. What is unique about this generation? Are larger world issues having an impact?

That's a great question that is hard to answer. I'm no psychologist, but I think kids basically bully for one of two reasons: because inside themselves they're scared, or just for the hell of it, because it's tolerated by adults and they think it's admired by other kids.

The kids who are scared may feel that way because of something that's going on in their home or their family, or because this is a complex and often scary world to grow up in. I think these are especially frightening times for kids. There's a lot of violence and sense of threat that kids experience, read about and/or see on TV. In many ways it's hard to feel safe.

It's really important, again, that we try our best to pay attention to the young people in our lives. Anyone who feels listened to, and feels there is someone they can trust and talk to, is less likely to hurt other people as an escape from his or her own fear.

The kids who torment or humiliate other kids just because they think it's fun, like the Jock Rots in the story, tend to do this when they know it's tolerated, or they even feel it's encouraged — they believe it makes them cool. Again, I think the more we shine a light on behaviors like bullying, so that everyone sees what they really are, the less tolerated and accepted they will be. There's always going to be a certain amount of casual cruelty in the world. The key thing is to resist letting it become organized, accepted cruelty.

People are more and more aware that bullying isn't just a harmless phase of growing up. Grown-up bullies seem to be everywhere, these days ... and a strikingly large portion of young people who've been involved in school shootings, like the Columbine killers, were severely bullied in their schools. I personally think awareness — just paying attention — is the most important thing. People are paying a lot more attention to bullying these days—and as someone who was bullied growing up, I hope this new attention will help a lot of kids feel less alone.

I hope The Revealers will do that, too. When I hear that it has, I feel tremendously gratified by that.

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