Published: Tammy 17 January 1981 to 18 April 1981
Artist: Giorgio Giorgetti
Translations/reprints: Tina 1981-82 as “Belinda boekenwurm”
Belinda Binder has had a very bookish upbringing, by parents who think books and studying are everything and scorn non-bookish things – like sport. Even their jobs are bookish: accountant (Dad) and town hall clerk (Mum). Belinda has excelled at studying and teachers praise her for her academic work. But for some reason Belinda is finding the life of a swot and bookworm increasingly unsatisfying.
Unfortunately, in more modern parlance Belinda is a nerd, and this makes her a target for bullying. Her particular enemies are Janet Jones and Dawn Davis, who are the complete opposite of her. Sport is all they bother with at school and they don’t care about classwork at all. They are the school sports champions and have remained unbeaten. So while the form teacher is full of praises about Belinda’s work, which she contrasts with Janet and Dawn’s sloppy work that they rush so they can go out and train, the PE teacher Miss Jagger praises Janet and Dawn while looking down on Belinda. Belinda does not shine at sport, is always left out of it, and her classmates scorn her for it. Even Miss Jagger does: “Really, Belinda Binder – always sprawling all over the place!” she sneers as one of the bullies trips her up.
At this point the English teacher Miss Milton asks Miss Jagger if Belinda can be spared PE in order to help set up the new school library. While doing so, Belinda surprises herself in doing a perfect forward roll in order to avoid a nasty fall off a ladder. Following this, she begins to wonder if she really is as hopeless at sport as she thinks and maybe she will really show the PE class something next time.
So Belinda is shattered when Miss Milton tells her she is being withdrawn from PE at school because she and Miss Jagger have taken the view it is just a waste of time for her. Instead, Belinda will use those periods to assist in the library. Just when Belinda had decided she wasn’t going to be a bookworm anymore and wanted to be a sports champion instead.
Undaunted, Belinda starts using her time in the library to do secret sports training and copying the sports activities she sees out the window. Fortunately for her the new library overlooks the school sports facilities, so she can see all the PE classes that go on there. She sets up stacks up books as hurdles, uses the library desk for vaulting, the shelves to practise gymnastics, the “silence please” board to practise swimming strokes on, and so forth. She even acquires a false book that can be used to smuggle in sports gear.
At home, Belinda rigs up a dummy of herself with her dad’s reading lamp so she can sneak out and train in the streets. She has to do this as Janet and Dawn regularly pass by her window while doing their training and observe her studying.
Belinda seems to be making progress, but has no real yardsticks or overseer to gauge by how much. However, one night something happens that suggests that Belinda may be a more serious rival to Janet and Dawn than she thinks. She found her father left behind a couple of pages of a vital report and needs to be intercepted at the train station fast. As no taxis are available the only option is to run – in pouring rain – so this is the first full test of Belinda’s training. As she sets off, she does not realise she is being tested even more. Janet and Dawn, who have become suspicious of Belinda’s secret training, see her and run to catch up and verify who she is. Belinda does not realise they are following her, but she keeps ahead of them and they fail to catch up. After delivering the papers Belinda finally discovers this, while they say the mystery girl was not a bad runner and therefore couldn’t possibly have been the bookworm.
On another occasion, Belinda has been secretly practising netball throws. Afterwards Janet and Dawn grab Belinda’s false book and start throwing it around. They are astonished when Belinda manages to catch it. Another hint that Belinda is making serious progress.
But of course close calls and slip-ups are inevitable. Eventually Dawn and Janet get so suspicious that they plant themselves in the library (joining the library, ducking out of sports periods) in order to keep an eye on Belinda. So now Belinda can no longer secretly train there.
Then comes sports day. Belinda steals some time to secretly train in the library now that Janet and Dawn are out of the way. However, it is at this time that Belinda gets caught right out. Miss Milton had brought the Binder parents to the library to show them how well their daughter is working there – and they get a horrible shock to see what Belinda has been really using the library for! They take a very dim view of it all, and are not at all impressed at Belinda demonstrating how she has been progressing with sports training using her improvised sports equipment. In their view, Belinda is not an athlete and should stay with books, the way she has been raised.
Belinda goes into outright rebellion at this and decides to prove that she is not a mere bookworm anymore. She breaks away from her angry parents and teacher, runs to the sports field, and demands to enter every event. Miss Jagger is astonished, but allows it. Belinda’s parents are mortified; they think Belinda is about to make a fool of herself in front of everyone. They can do nothing but watch, ironically accepting the invite to sports day they had scorned, but not are not supporting Belinda at all. The whole school expects one big laugh out of the bookworm entering sports day.
However, Belinda’s unorthodox self-training begins to pay off. The pupils are astonished to see the bookworm do better than they expected at the hurdles:
“Hey, the bookworm’s not bad!”
“Not bad at all! She’s only just behind the leaders!”
Belinda comes fourth at the hurdling. She is placed third in gymnastics, and is beginning to earn respect from Miss Jagger. However, the Binder parents remain unmoved.
Ironically, Janet and Dawn are now so worried at Belinda proving more serious competition than expected that they begin to resort to dirty tricks and cheating to stop her rather than their skills and greater experience. At swimming, Janet flashes a mirror in Belinda’s eyes to stop her seeing the turn and enable Dawn to win. However, something makes the reflection flash back into Janet’s eyes, enabling Belinda to see the turn and finish second. Later, Belinda realises it was her mum cleaning her glasses that flashed the light back at Janet.
Finally, there is the 800-metre race, and Belinda is running against Janet. Dawn tries to nobble Belinda by dropping her book under her feet, but is caught red-handed by Miss Milton and the Binder parents. Seeing the dirty trick Dawn tried to play on Belinda, the Binder parents are finally won over and start cheering Belinda on. Encouraged by this, Belinda beats Janet – the first ever to do so – and comes first in the race. Miss Jagger is well and truly astonished at this.
The Binder parents tell Belinda she has taught them a whole new respect for sport and they now see that sports and studies complement each other. Everyone cheers Belinda as she receives her trophy – except for the seething Janet and Dawn.
I have often wondered if this story was the Tammy version of Jinty’s “Tears of a Clown”, which is one reason why I have posted the entry. There are some similarities between Belinda Bookworm and Kathy Clowne: they both wear glasses; they are underrated and friendless at school, which makes them the targets of bullying; they turn to sports training to gain confidence and win respect; they both have indifferent parents and teachers who don’t help them at all until near the end of the story; and they both hope entering school sports day events will get them the respect they want. Bookworm started in Tammy only two months after Clown ended, and Jinty and Tammy shared some writers. So it is possible that Clown was an inspiration for Bookworm.
Whether it was or not, there are huge differences between Bookworm and Clown that make it worthwhile to compare the two stories. While both Belinda and Kathy embark on their respective sports training in order to beat the bullies, Belinda does hers in secret while Kathy keeps striving to prove her talent, but the chief bully (or fate) keeps getting in the way. Belinda is also a more proactive heroine than Kathy, in that her secret sports training is a form of revenge against the bullies a la Revenge of the Nerds. It’s also a rebellion against her bookish upbringing and being labelled a bookworm. There is also an ironic edge to Belinda’s rebellion in that she is using the very thing she has turned her back on – books and libraries. Instead of using them to read she is using them to train, and is showing readers that there is more than one way to use a book.
In regard to the bullying, Belinda does not have it nearly as bad as Kathy. At least the teachers praise Belinda for her academic work. Kathy is bottom of everything at school, because the bullying erodes her confidence and nobody steps in to help her. But when it comes to sport, both Kathy and Belinda want to prove themselves there because that’s where they will earn respect from the people who disparage them. However, it comes in different ways for Kathy and Belinda. Kathy hoped sports day would enable her to prove her talent and win respect. Instead, it is the final humiliation that drives Kathy into running away and setting off a chain of events that redeem the people who bullied or failed her. But for Belinda, sports day is precisely where she proves herself and puts an end to the bullying – by giving the bullies their first-ever defeat at sport and thoroughly humiliating them. The unhelpful parents and school staff redeem themselves in different ways. In the case of Kathy, it’s their realising they have let her down and try to find her after she runs away. In Belinda’s case, it’s foiling the dirty tricks that the bullies start pulling on her, which makes Belinda’s parents more redeeming than Kathy’s.
There are some glaring plot holes that really stretch the story’s credibility. For one thing, no school would withdraw a pupil from PE just because they’re not good at it; only medical grounds would excuse a pupil from PE. Second, when Janet and Dawn get suspicious, they take a rather cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face approach by sitting in the library with Belinda to stop her suspected training. After all, they must loathe sitting in the library when they want to be out there doing sport with Miss Jagger. And how many times can they get away with coming up with excuses to dodge PE in order to sit in the library watching Belinda? And it’s all on mere suspicion – they have no proof. If they had any real sense they would come up with a plan to catch Belinda red-handed in the library. Most glaring of all, how is Belinda able to swim at competition standard on sports day? She is a complete non-swimmer and the only training she has had is practising strokes on the library’s “silence” notice board. The only swimming we see her do in actual water is a few strokes. So how is she able to do competitive swimming against Dawn – hidden power or something? Or did Tammy have Belinda do some actual swimming lessons off panel without telling us?
Plot weaknesses are offset somewhat by Georgetti’s caricatured, cartoony artwork, which provides the humour and helps make the story engaging. In the hands of a straight artist the story would far worked less well. But in the hands of an artist like Giorgetti, improbabilities like using torn-up books to practise long jump and high jump, and shelves to practise gymnastics are more forgiving. This is because they have a dash of humour and give the sense that they are not to be taken too seriously.