From a newsletter article explaining how I came to write this book:
Two of my nephews lost their mother to cancer when they were only nine and eleven. It was agonizing to watch Tyler and Austin at their mother’s funeral: they seemed to understand too much and not enough, all at once.
Not long after the funeral, I happened to see something another boy had written. In order to protect the not-so-innocent, I have to be vague about that boy’s identity (I will say, it was not anyone I’m related to), but what he wrote was: “Today I beated up a kid and took all his money. I made $16.”
The boy in question was not someone I thought of as a bully, and he’d written those words in an oddly public place. I wondered: was he bragging—or confessing?
That wondering joined my agonizing over my nephews’ grief. The next thing I knew, I was thinking about an angry, worried, secretive boy named Dexter, who writes on his first day at a new school, “I’m the new kid. I am tuf. This morning I beat up a kid.”
I was not supposed to be writing a book at that particular point in my life. I’d just finished writing a book. I was supposed to be focused on doing author visits, and re-organizing my office, and taking care of all the other duties I’d neglected when I was writing. But I kept finding myself sneaking back to my computer, Dexter’s voice in my ear. I found out that the boy he’d “beat up” was named Robin, and that Robin had a few problems of his own. I found out that Dexter’s father, like my nephews’ mother, had cancer. I found out that Dexter’s teacher kept making him rewrite his story.
And, eventually, like Dexter, I found surprises in my own story. When other people began reading Dexter the Tough, and the reviews began coming in, the comment I heard over and over again was that it was a book “about bullying.” At first, I was indignant. “No, no,” I wanted to correct everyone. “Dexter didn’t beat anyone up to take their money. He’s not a bully! He’s just a kid with a lot of problems that other people don’t understand.” And then I had my “duh” moment (which could more nicely be called an epiphany): “Oh, yeah. I guess a lot of bullies could be described that way….”