Some people become bullies due to their circumstances — nothing can be closer to the truth in Bernice Buttman’s case than this. Yes, Bernice is a bully and quite a brat, with a surname to match, in Niki Lenz’s Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen.

The fifth grader, like most bullies, puts up a tough face to hide her insecurity and loneliness. Besides, this is how she has learnt to behave at home, with four elder brothers bullying their time away at the trailer park they live in with their reckless and careless mother. Bernice has only seen people being rough, though she doesn’t like doing it all the time.

No wonder Bernice doesn’t have friends, though she wants to have a best friend to hang out with. But who will talk to her when everyone is so afraid of her? So when her mother decides to leave to try her luck in a reality show, Bernice’s brothers get to stay alone at the trailer but she has to go and live with an aunt in the picture-perfect town of Halfway.

Ms Knightley, the librarian of her school who can see through Bernice’s tough exterior, kindly advises her to take this as a chance to start over, change her image and let her real self shine.

Through humour, some of it a bit crass, and crazy events, Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen tells the story of how anyone can change if given a chance, thought it is not so easy. You see Bernice’s aunt is nun in a convent and wishes to make a proper lady out of Bernice. Well, Bernice also tries, but, understandably, fails miserably many times and ends up making an enemy of the town’s mayor’s daughter on the first day of school.

The writer has well captured Bernice’s voice, with all its confused logic, conflicting emotions and contradictory actions. And it is this that gives such a great humorous touch to the book that the reader can’t help but laugh, at least giggle a few times. It’s a book that middle-schoolers will enjoy and makes a great read-aloud book.

The moral struggle and messages in the story are clear, but presented in subtle ways and one that a reader can relate to. When her mother returns suddenly and she has to go back, Bernice doesn’t want to return to her old life or ways. So does she get to stay or return with mum?

Well, no spoilers here, but frankly, more than the story, it is the treatment and writing style that will be enjoyed by young readers.

Published in Dawn, Young World, September 7th, 2019