Countless books have tackled the subject of bullying, in all its forms. Whether verbal, physical, emotional, or social, when one child is forced to endure abuse by another (or many others), the effects can be devastating. In Vancouver author Katarina Jovanovic’s The Blue Vase, a young girl experiences incomprehension and torment after a friend turns on her.
Sonia spends the hours before and after school in the care of her next-door neighbour, Mrs. Kaminski, while her parents are at work. The arrangement is fine until Mrs. Kaminski’s granddaughter, Marta, walks into the room just as Sonia accidentally breaks her babysitter’s new vase. Marta, who is also Sonia’s classmate, convinces Sonia the vase was very expensive and her parents will have to pay for it. Devastated, Sonia knows her parents, who are barely scraping by, will never be able to repay Mrs. Kaminski. When Marta says that she will hide the broken vase and keep the news of its destruction from her grandmother as long as Sonia hands over her prized collection of erasers, Sonia feels she has no choice but to go along.
The beauty in this scenario is the seemingly benign manner in which the bullying begins. Though Marta’s tone makes it clear to readers that her intentions are anything but generous, Sonia accepts the deal in part because she believes Marta is trying to help her. Thinking the trade will put the matter to rest, Sonia is confused and hurt when Marta then tells her the erasers were not enough to maintain her silence.
Months of bullying ensue, with Marta stealing Sonia’s breakfasts, snacks, and lunches, demanding money and other gifts, and spreading rumours that leave Sonia friendless and increasingly depressed. This kind of social bullying is especially pervasive and hard to deal with for many kids, and Jovanovic, a teacher by trade, nails how isolating it can be. Without bruises or other physical evidence to prove the abuse, Sonia’s teachers and parents have no idea what is going on. Not surprisingly, she becomes withdrawn, her grades suffer, and she becomes trapped in a cycle of fear
and frustration, worrying that Marta will tell on her even as she becomes angrier about the girl’s demands.
Jovanovic also doesn’t tiptoe around the role adults play in bullying situations. When someone steals a recorder from the music teacher’s desk and plants it in Sonia’s backpack, the teacher refuses to believe that Sonia didn’t take it and calls her parents. Sonia is forced to confess to her mother that she’s being bullied at school, and that someone put the recorder in her bag to get her in trouble. The next day, Sonia and her mother speak to the music teacher, who eventually believes the girl about the recorder, but is less than sympathetic about the bullying. When Sonia’s mother asks the teacher to keep an eye out to ensure the children don’t bother her daughter anymore, the teacher replies, “Mrs. Antonescu, perhaps you don’t realize how many students we have here. It’s not possible to supervise everyone at all times. It is the student’s responsibility to tell us about any problems they are having.” She then infers that maybe issues at home are preventing Sonia from sharing such troubling information with her parents, and says that Sonia needs to learn to “stand up for herself.”
Another teacher is cast as the hero, encouraging Sonia to write about what is bothering her, and offering a supportive authority figure when she needs one most.
The only mar on Jovanovic’s story is how the bullying is resolved, which is too neat to be realistic. Though Sonia eventually does find the courage to stand up for herself, it is only because she discovers the vase was a dollar-store purchase, and Mrs. Kaminski has known since the day it was broken that Sonia was responsible. While this wraps things up cleanly for the purposes of the story, children with first-hand experience as the victims of bullying may come away disappointed that a book that has been so true-to-life in its portrayal would end in such a pat manner.