So. Among its other designations, October is Bullying Awareness/Prevention Month. A month doesn’t begin to cover it. It makes me weary to my bones that we are still fighting bullying, in its broad and subtle almost unrecognized forms. There are novels involving bullying that I like very much, and will be reviewing. But sometimes a book about something very different can cut to the point with a few sentences. Sometimes you can know something by knowing what it isn’t.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore says to Neville Longbottom, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” He’s right. Actually, it’s possibly harder, because there’s sometimes more risk involved. This is particularly true when it comes to things like bullying another person and peer pressure. If your enemy has done something wrong, it’s easier to recognize and doesn’t cost so much personally. If your friend does the same wrong thing, however, you might be afraid to admit it and you might try to excuse your friend where you wouldn’t excuse someone you didn’t like. Maybe you’re afraid your friend will get angry at being called out. But if they’re your friend, it will be temporary; if they’re your friend, you’ll probably make them think.
To that end, Mr. Rogers’ Extraordinary Friends managed to hurt my heart in a good way with one sentence. It was gentle and spot on, and in my head I said Thank you over and over because somebody got it. But I was aching, too, because it’s such a rare thing sometimes, even now. What he says is this: “There are things you can do to help each other… and things you can tell each other, even hard things, such as ‘I don’t like when you do that.’” This sentence applies to anyone, but is particularly poignant because of the nature of the book.
The text of Extraordinary Friends is about forming friendships, period. But the illustrating photographs are about forming friendships with people with disabilities. (Pardon the awkward construction there; usually in these cases I’m inclined to use “disabled people.”) I am thrilled with these photographs. Much like We All Move, Extraordinary Friends presents a range of disabilities from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome. Rogers doesn’t avoid more involved-looking disabilities, either, which is rare. (I’ve known people who use head switches to drive high-tech chairs, or who require eating assistance, but I’ve never seen people like them in a children’s book until now.)
People with disabilities face particular difficulty standing up to their friends sometimes. People want to help them, but often do so without knowing or asking how. Sometimes, that inadvertently hurts. So even though others might mean well, the disabled person sometimes needs to say, “I don’t like that,” and hope they get the chance to explain why.
Sometimes, that doesn’t happen, which is why speaking up costs so much energy and courage. But when it does, you know what an extraordinary friendship is. There might be fewer Dumbledores and Mr. Rogers and Nevilles in the world than there should be, but they are definitely there. I hope you find them.