Elise Dembowski is not afraid of a little hard work. In fact, she embraces it. All her life, she’s taken on big, all-encompassing projects. When she was eight years old, she built her own dollhouse. When she was thirteen, she taught herself stop-motion animation. And when she’s fifteen, she embarks on the biggest, and most important, project of them all: becoming cool. Except she fails. Miserably. And everything falls to pieces.
Now, if possible, Elise’s social life is even worse than it was before. Until she stumbles into an underground dance club, and opens the door to a world she never knew existed. An inside-out world where, seemingly overnight, a previously uncool high school sophomore can become the hottest new DJ sensation. Elise finally has what she always wanted: acceptance, friendship, maybe even love. Until the real world threatens to steal it all away.
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I decided to read THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE because of the cover. I knew it had something to do with DJing, but I never really paid attention to what the book was all about–just that a lot of people seemed to be raving about it When I finally got my hands on a copy and finished it, I realized this book was something special. I decided to go the easy way out and not write a review.
But that didn’t end up working.
So I decided to write an impersonal, go-read-this-now review.
But that didn’t work either, because I read Emily May’s review of THIS SONG. It made me tear up, and before I knew it I was deleting and rewriting my entire review, the way I should’ve wrote it the first time. I couldn’t bring myself to publish it on RealityLapse, but I sent copies to both Emily May and Leila Sales. You could say it was an awkward first conversation, but we quickly got to talking about this book and I got an idea for a feature.
Together, Emily, Leila and I compiled this interview-discussion about our experiences with bullying. I hope you guys learn from it, and you’ll add this amazing book to your Goodreads shelves. What do you think of bullying? Leave a comment below!
1) Why do you think kids bully other kids?
Leila: I think different kids have different reasons. Sometimes they’re trying to impress their friends, or make their friends laugh. Sometimes they’re trying to make themselves feel better by making somebody else feel worse. Sometimes they do it because they feel powerless, and hurting somebody else seems like a good way to make yourself feel like you have power.
Eli: Kids are mean. I think that a lot of it has to do with fitting in and more importantly, not standing out. In trying to hide the things that they don’t like about themselves, I think that they feel that if they point it out in others people won’t notice them as much.
Emily: I think a lot of kids victimize others to avoid being the victim themselves. High School is a tough world and I think that being mean can work as something of a self-defense mechanism. In my experience, looking back, the vast majority of school bullies weren’t the popular and beautiful kids, but they managed to hide their insecurities by pointing out the flaws in others, including me.
2) How would you describe bullying or seeing someone else getting bullied?
Leila: I think it’s when somebody says or does something hurtful to somebody else, knowing that it’s hurtful, with the intention of hurting. They may claim “no offense,” but don’t believe it– they meant offense.
Eli: Physical things, they hurt. But cyberbullying–it’s always there. If you feel pain, you can mentally get over it. You can always fight another day, but when it really gets inside of you, it changes how you react to other people. Personally, I think cyber bullying is the worst. Sure, it can have something to do with what you physically look like. For cyberbullying, you’re behind a computer screen. Your bully has the potential to imagine you any way they want. No bullying is easy.
Emily: I believe that bullying is the act of repeatedly and intentionally trying to hurt someone else. It’s strange because whenever I used to see others being bullied, I would feel angry towards the bully; but when it was me being bullied, I always felt angry towards myself – I think blaming yourself is a major problem a lot of bullied kids face.
3) What do you wish you had known or had when you were being bullied?
Leila: I know this is a cliche to say at this point, but I wish I’d known that it really does get better– you grow up and you are more in control of your circumstances, and you get to meet more people who are similar to you. Most adults aren’t going to bother being jerks to you for no particular reason. And I wish I’d known that it wasn’t my fault– I didn’t “deserve” to be bullied because I was “doing something wrong.” Those are some of the main things that Elise realizes over the course of THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE.
Eli: I wish I’d known what to say. I wasn’t sure exactly how to act or what to do around people who were getting bullied. Never having been bullied myself, I didn’t want to make things worse. It was hard to see people getting bullied, and I wish I’d known that really, anything does help. Reaching out to someone helps, even if you choose not to intervene.
Emily: I wish I could have seen past the sphere that was the High School world. I can remember how it felt and it still makes my stomach feel sick sometimes when I dwell on it for too long. But High School feels like all there is when you’re a teenager; it’s really hard to imagine a world that exists outside of it, and a life beyond what you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s that old cliche – “it gets better” – but it does, it really does.
4) How do you deal with bullying?
Leila: Elise ultimately deals with bullying by finding her own self-respect. Other kids can and will still tell her that she’s a loser, she’s a weirdo, but their words no longer hold the same power over her because she knows, deep down, that they’re wrong. She doesn’t have to prove to them that they are wrong anymore, because she has proven it to herself.
Eli: I don’t deal with bullying myself. Honestly, I find that simply talking to someone who has been bullied or needs someone to reach out to can help a lot. Just letting them know that you aren’t judging them, and trying to understand their situation, will mean a lot to them. I feel like that definitely ties in with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on Twitter and spreading the knowledge about the issues that teenagers face.
Emily: Honestly? I think the victim-blaming culture in society needs to change. We live in a world where rape victims’ clothing and behavior is scrutinized in the media and the 12-year-old title character in Lolita is labelled a seductress. I think it is deeply-ingrained in us to look for the fault in the victim and to assume that we’ve done something wrong if we become the victim of attack. Bullied kids are being taught to wonder what’s wrong with themselves, not to question whether the bully is wrong.
5) In your opinion, does bullying effect people even after it’s been stopped?
Leila: Absolutely. I edited a wonderful novel about this, Jennifer Hubbard’s UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP. It’s about how bullying can leave marks on its victims years after the perpetrators have moved on. Anything that we say or do to other people can affect them in ways that we wouldn’t anticipate. And not just bullying: sometimes doing something nice for someone can also have an impact on that person much further in the future than you might imagine.
Eli: Yes. If anything, it really is about bullying after it happens. When it first happens, it’s just hard on you because it’s a new change but you can eventually ignore it. But then it gets to the point where you can’t ignore it. And it starts to change you. When the bully feels more comfortable around you, that’s when everything really just gets worse. It’s a form of trauma.
Emily: Without question. Unfortunately, I would say the effects of my experience lasted far longer than the bullying itself. The last of the bullying ended when I was 16 but it took me a long time to stop being suspicious of other people’s intentions. One characteristic of my bullying was that they would slyly tell me they liked my hair/shoes/etc. and then turn to their friends and laugh. I still sometimes find it difficult to accept compliments and constantly question the truth in them.
6) Why don’t kids tell others when they’re being bullied?
Emily: As I said with the first question, I think it depends on the kid and the circumstances. Some kids do tell. Other don’t tell because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them, they think they’re bringing it on themselves somehow, and if they told an adult, that adult might say, “Well, if you just acted less weird and played more sports and tried a little harder to fit in, you wouldn’t have these problems.” Still others don’t tell because they don’t believe that anyone else has the power to fix the situation, or because they’ve been explicitly threatened not to tell anyone.
Eli: I think that it’s because the victim either doesn’t think that the person won’t help them, won’t listen to them or will blame them for it. There’s also the fear that a bully will lash out at you more for telling others, especially if the adult doesn’t do anything about it. No matter how many bullies you tell the teachers about, no matter how many times the teacher talks to the bully, you feel like things won’t change.
Emily: Mostly I think it’s because they either blame themselves or think nothing will change. I wrote about this latter feeling in my review. If you think that your bullying is directly linked to the person you are and caused by your own character flaws, you will also believe that no amount of involvement from parents or teachers can change this. You’re bullied because you’re weird? Well you’ll still be weird even if your parents call the school. You’re bullied because you’re fat? Well you’ll still be fat even if the teachers speak to the bullies.
7) Can people who haven’t been bullied understand bullying fully? What did Elise’s experience mean to you?
Leila: I hope that books like THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE can help people who haven’t had Elise’s exact experiences still understand what those experiences feel like on the inside. That’s what good fiction can do: help you experience empathy, help you see that other people’s life experiences might be very different from your own, but their feelings are every bit as real and consequential as yours.
Like I said before, I think that with new books and more education, people–and kids especially–will learn to accept things about other people and bullying as a whole can start to diminish. The first step towards learning about bullying for me was reading, and with books like this I hope that other people can say the same.
Emily: I hope with better education and books like Leila Sales’ that they can start to. Bullying is something that can have a huge negative effect on a person for the rest of their life and it needs to be addressed early.
Elise’s experience was mine. I couldn’t believe how closely our stories resembled one another. I am no longer a bullied teenager, but a 22-year-old with good friends and interesting opportunities on the horizon… and still THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE took me back to all the pain and sadness of High School, whilst simultaneously reminding me how much it does get better and how far I’ve come from that. I’ve literally read thousands of books in my life, but I think this is the single book that affected me most.
8) Did any song in particular help save you?
Leila: Lots of different songs, at different points in my life. “Leave,” by Matchbox Twenty; “A Murder of One,” by the Counting Crows; “Someone Great,” by LCD Soundsystem… I could go on. Sometimes a song just hits you in the right way, and makes you realize you’re not the only one who feels this way.
Eli: A few, actually. Unwell by Matchbox 20. Someday and Her Diamonds by Rob Thomas. I Got You by Leona Lewis. Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson. Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne.
Emily: So many. “Not a Pretty Girl” by Ani Difranco was a good one at a time when I didn’t feel so “pretty”. Also, “My Life” by Billy Joel and (a bit cliche but…) “You Learn” by Alanis Morissette.
9) What advice do you have to people out there who are being bullied today?
Leila: It’s really hard. There’s no one piece of advice I could give in a blog post that would make it all better. But I would tell them to just keep pulling through, because no matter how bleak it gets, it does eventually get better. I would tell them that they’re not the only ones experiencing this suffering, that a lot of really happy, successful adults were once victims of bullying. And I would advise them to remember what makes them special, and not to give anyone else the power to take that away.
Eli: You’re not alone. It’s not your fault that this is happening. It’s theirs. And try to get close to people. Make some friends. Don’t be afraid. Tell yourself every morning that today’s going to be better. I’m not saying things will be nice that day. But someday, the world’s going to change. So many things can happen in one day. Making friends and building up confidence is definitely a part of that. It does get better.
Emily: I would tell them that no matter how it may seem, it isn’t their fault and it does get better. I would tell them about the dark place I reached at a certain point in my life and all the wonderful things I wouldn’t have got to experience afterwards if I’d let that darkness consume me. I would tell them that the people who give them hell now won’t even be a blip on their radar in a few years time. Most of all, I think I’d tell them that everyone is weird and there is no “normal”. And that anyone who tries to make them feel otherwise is lying.
Leila Sales grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2006. Now she lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in the mostly glamorous world of children’s book publishing. Leila spends most of her time thinking about sleeping, kittens, dance parties, and stories that she wants to write.