Desmond and the Very Mean Word

Written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams

Illustrated by A.G. Ford

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Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words truly torture the soul. Bullying can be as overt as a mean word shouted across the playground, or as subtle as exclusion from a game. The setting for Desmond and the Very Mean Word is South Africa in the mid-1900s, but it may as well be America in the twenty-first century. The themes of racism, bullying, forgiveness, and friendship are challenging and inspiring, and great points for beginning discussion in a third grade class. Any young pupil can relate to Desmond, hearing ugly things and wanting to retaliate. Through the help of Father Trevor, Desmond learns the valuable lesson that retaliation does not satisfy the soul nearly as much as forgiveness and peace.

This book is fantastic to read individually, but is best-suited for a read aloud. Here are several journal prompts for students’ response: Have you ever been bullied? How did you respond? Have you ever retaliated against bullying? Did it help? What would you have done in Desmond’s place? Father Trevor acts as a mentor for Desmond; we understand how vital mentoring is for students’ emotional welfare. Most schools have a big buddies program; it would be beneficial for students to reflect on how they have benefitted from participating in such a program or how they could help a student when they become a big buddy. Students have plenty to say and learn about bullying. Desmond and the Very Mean Word is a great book for an elementary class to read with their daily teacher or with a counselor. It would fit well in an anti-bullying unit.

For ideas about anti-bullying activities and lesson plans, visit

  • DesmondTitle: Desmond and the Very Mean Word
  • Authors: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams
  • Illustrator: A. G. Ford
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Reviewer: Sharon Schulte
  • Hardback, 32 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5229-6
  • Genre: non-fiction/self/feelings/bullying/forgiveness

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