According to the CDC, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse at some point in childhood.
A statistic like that takes your breath away. The last thing we want to think about when we’re helping a child find their next favorite book is whether they’ve experienced some form of sexual abuse or harassment. We can’t tell just by looking if the kids who come into our library have experienced abuse, but we can make sure we have the resources we need to help them.
One step we can take is to make sure our collections have diverse, age-appropriate books for young readers on topics like consent, abuse, recovery, and speaking up when you’ve been hurt.
The Power of Bibliotherapy
Books that reflect the experience of childhood sexual assault can be part of a survivor’s recovery through bibliotherapy. ALA’s resource page on bibliotherapy explains that research has shown that readers of all ages can benefit from reading books in which a character has experienced the same kind of trauma they have. Seeing a character who has been through what they’ve been through can help young survivors recognize that they are not alone, that what happened to them is not their fault, and can give them a pathway toward recovery.
Up until recently, sexual abuse has been a more commonly represented topic in young adult literature. It’s rarely been present in middle grade literature. Unfortunately, a 2016 study published in Children and Youth Services review found that a third of sixth graders and more than half of sevenths graders have experienced some form of sexual harassment, which means that if we’re waiting until they’re reading young adult books to broach the topic, we’re waiting until it’s too late.
Different Approaches by Middle Grade Authors
Recently, more middle grade authors have been addressing sexual abuse and harassment in their books, in age-appropriate ways. Different authors have depicted different types of abuse, from harassment in schools to physical assault. In Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You, the main character experiences uncomfortable hugs and unwanted comments from her male classmates. In Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, two sisters experience sexual assault from their male caregiver, and the author uses age-appropriate, but still heart-wrenching, language to describe their trauma. Some authors focus on the experience of an assault as the central storyline, as in Sonja K. Solter’s When You Know What I Know. By contrast, Kate Messner’s Chirp combines a relatively light-hearted mystery with the main character coming to realize that her gymnastics coach’s behavior was escalating towards something deeply inappropriate.
Notably, in the majority of these titles the abuse or harassment is coming from someone close to the main character, instead of the “stranger danger” we sometimes see depicted in picture books. In Paula Chase’s So Done, a pair of best friends find themselves splitting apart after one friend is inappropriately touched by the other friend’s father. In Lexie Bean’s The Ship We Built, one of the rare books to both depict a boy experiencing abuse, and to address the high rates of assault experienced by trans youth, the abuse comes from the main character’s father. According to the CDC, 91% of child sexual abuse is not perpetrated by a stranger, but by someone the child or family knows. It’s important to have books in our collection that reflect this reality.
Finally, nonfiction can also be a great resource for helping young readers to understand vocabulary and see the contrast between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Consent (for Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of You, by Rachel Brian, is an example of a reader-friendly text that’s short, full of funny, graphic novel-style illustrations, but still covers concepts of consent and healthy relationships in an informative way.
Books do not solve the trauma of child sexual assault, but they can be one piece of recovery. And for many children, having a stable, trustworthy adult in their lives, who can help them find the resources they need, can make all the difference.
If you or someone you know is dealing with sexual trauma, get support from RAINN’s website or call 1-800-656-HOPE.
Today’s guest blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee and is currently a children’s librarian at the Castro Valley Branch of the Alameda County Library.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials