Caroline Pignat’s Egghead (2008) is a young adult novel that details the effects of bullying through the eyes of three junior high school students. The novel has been lauded for its sensitive portrayal of multiple perspectives of the causes and effects of bullying. Egghead was shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Ontario Library Association’s Red Maple award, the Saskatchewan Young Reader’s Association Snow Willow Award and the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Book of the Year award.
Caroline Pignat was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Ottawa in her youth. Upon graduating from university, she worked as an English teacher and began writing short stories and poems. She began working on Egghead, her first novel, as part of a writing workshop hosted by children’s author Jerry Spinelli.
Pignat was inspired by Spinelli’s suggestion to write about an “emotionally charged memory” and recalled witnessing a boy being bullied when she was in Grade 7; she wondered why he did not stand up for himself and why she did not intervene. The structure of the book was inspired by Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped, which features two protagonists alternating the telling of a story. Pignat also drew inspiration from Barbara Coloroso’s The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, which explores the psychology of children who bully or are affected by it, as well as Pignat’s own experiments with poetry.
Egghead is told from the intertwined perspectives of three Grade 9 students at a junior high in an Ottawa suburb. William James Reid, known as Will, is an outcast whose unusual interests — most notably, insects — and odd way of dressing attracts the attention of Shane, the class bully. Katie McGillivray is a straight-A student who gets paired with Will for a science fair project. She becomes friendly with him, despite his social status. Devan Mitchell is one of Shane’s friends and is at first a willing participant in the bullying of Will and other students. Will’s sections are presented as free-verse poetry that he writes about his experiences at home and in school. Katie and Devan’s sections are written as first-person prose accounts of the same events.
The book opens with Katie observing Will as he examines a bug on the first day of school. Though she admits she isn’t particularly close to him, she is nevertheless moved to stand up for him when Shane squishes his bug and begins to mock Will as “Egghead,” a name that sticks. Devan participates in mocking Will but also takes notice of Katie, unsure of what to make of her.
Shane’s bullying escalates as the school year goes on. When someone reports Shane for an unrelated act of bullying, he is beaten by his mother’s boyfriend for his misbehaviour. Shane decides Will is to blame and physically assaults him in the hallway at school. Katie again tries to intervene but is prevented from doing so by Devan. Devan begins to realize he is uncomfortable with Shane’s behaviour. This is driven in part by his attraction to Katie, which is furthered when he sees her artistic talent.
Later, during the school science fair, Shane catches Will alone. When Will attempts to stand up for himself, Shane wraps him in duct tape and destroys his and Katie’s entry — an ant farm. Devan witnesses the event but hides, not wanting to help Shane but not wanting to disappoint him, either. Will refuses to tell on Shane out of fear, insisting he accidentally broke the ant farm, but neither Katie nor the school officials believe him.
Things get worse for Katie when her father is admitted to the hospital due to complications from cancer. She attempts to cheer herself up at the school’s Christmas dance. While attempting to avoid Devan’s attention, Katie begins dancing with Will. When they inadvertently win a gift certificate for a romantic date, Katie denies being Will’s girlfriend in front of the entire school. Will is mocked and refuses to talk to Katie again.
During the class ski trip several weeks later, Shane steals Will’s tuque and throws it down a mogul run. Will, an inexperienced skier, gets tired of being afraid and attempts to retrieve it. He strikes a tree, breaking his leg and leaving him in a coma. Katie visits him frequently in the hospital, though she cannot bring herself to talk to him when he eventually wakes up. Devan, feeling guilty for the role he played in the events leading up to Will’s injury, begins bringing him library books.
Suspicious of Devan’s behaviour, Shane begins to target Katie for harassment, forcing Devan to finally stand up to him. After a fight provoked by Shane threatening Katie, Devan is suspended from school. He visits Will and begins working on his apology. Katie finally works up the nerve to talk to Will, only to find out that his father has taken him out of the hospital and moved back to his hometown. She returns from the hospital to find Devan, who has finished his apology; he has made a new ant farm based on pictures Katie had drawn of her grandmother’s farm. He also provides her with Will’s email address and the gift certificate Will won at the Christmas dance, saying that Will suggested they could use it.
Upon its release, Egghead received positive reviews. Critics noted the complexity of the protagonists’ relationships and the book’s exploration of the psychology of bullies, the bullied and the children who witness bullying. Egghead was shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Ontario Library Association’s Red Maple award, the Saskatchewan Young Reader’s Association Snow Willow award and the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year award.
Egghead launched Pignat’s writing career, which has included six more young adult novels and a book of poetry. Two of her novels, 2008’s Greener Grass: The Famine Years, and 2014’s The Gospel Truth, received Governor General’s Literary Awards for Young People’s Literature — Text. Pignat is one of only six authors to receive multiple awards in that category.