The unnamed narrator of What Happens Next is bullied for being different and doesn’t want to go to school. The situation is hard to talk about, so when Mom asks her daughter how her day was, the answer is always “fine.” At least the little girl has Mom and Sparky the dog, both of whom love and appreciate her. She also has books about science – genomes and astronomy and volcanoes – that make her glad to be alive.
When at last she tells her mom what the problem is, Mom explains that the tormentor, referred to as Bully B., is trapped in her own way of seeing the world, and that if she got to know a bit about the narrator, maybe the dynamic could change. The protagonist tries this, while Mom and Sparky wait at the edge of the schoolyard, and Bully B. is slowly drawn in by the girl’s vast knowledge of science and her descriptions of how amazing the universe is. By the end of the book, the bully has a name (Brielle) and is no longer calling the narrator a weirdo.
Written from the child’s point of view, this is a powerful exploration of the challenges faced by many kids today, especially those who are perceived as different. Hughes’s direct language articulates the pain of how hopeless bullying can make us feel: “What Bully B. Does Today: Looks me up and down. Shoves my books. Calls me Weirdo. What Her Friends Do: Laugh. What Everyone Else Does: Nothing.” But Mom’s loving support and the narrator’s willingness to try to find common ground with her persecutor open up hope and possibility for the reader.
The muted tones of Sookocheff’s graphic novel–style illustrations, with only the most significant persons or objects in each scene highlighted in colour, allows the reader to focus on the essentials of each emotional moment.
What Happens Next is a powerful book and can be used to help young readers discuss their own hard-to-talk-about situations.