New York: When Kate Messner read the testimonies of the gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar, she was struck by his behaviour early on: giving the girls little gifts and back rubs, or sending them private texts.
It got her thinking. “What if we could teach kids to recognise this and speak up, and tell us when someone made them uncomfortable?” she said. “And then, what if we really listened?”
The idea informed Messner’s latest novel, “Chirp,” about a young gymnast reckoning with the inappropriate behaviour of an assistant coach during a summer at her grandmother’s cricket farm.
“There’s no explicit sexual assault in the story,” because it is written for 10- to 14-year-olds, she said. “It’s all what we would look at, what experts would look at, and say, ‘That’s somebody grooming a child.’ “
“Chirp” is one of several middle-grade books — typically geared toward children from 8 to 12 — published over the past year that address sexual consent, abuse and harassment, subjects previously considered off-limits for such young readers. They include “Maybe He Just Likes You,” about a seventh grader harassed by male classmates; “When You Know What I Know,” about a girl’s emotional journey after she is inappropriately touched by her uncle; and “The Ship We Built,” about a transgender boy who sends his secrets, including how his father hurts him, off to the world in the form of letters tied to balloons. “Fighting Words,” about two sisters who must learn to protect each other after escaping their mother’s abusive boyfriend, is due out in August.
The writers were inspired by personal experiences with harassment or abuse, but the #MeToo movement added a sense of urgency to telling their stories.
“I had no plans to write anything about it any time soon a year and a half ago,” said Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, the author of “Fighting Words.” But reading the barrage of reports of sexual assault and harassment in the fall of 2018, she become angrier and angrier at how little had changed since her childhood, when she had experienced abuse.
“I just sort of had had enough,” she said. She wrote 40 pages of the novel in one sitting, and though she knew it was a taboo subject, she said she felt sure this was “the hill I was willing to die on.”
Young adult books, geared toward teenagers, have long explored topics such as sexual violence, but middle-grade writers have largely steered clear because of resistant parents and publishers wary of scaring them off. Yet a range of research and data show that many children are exposed to sexual harassment or abuse.
Comments and jokes
In a 2016 study published in Children and Youth Services Review, a third of sixth graders and more than half of seventh graders reported having experienced some form of sexualised harassment, most commonly in the form of lewd comments or jokes, with girls more likely to be on the receiving end than boys. According to the anti-sexual violence group RAINN, child protective services in the United States find evidence of or substantiate sexual abuse claims every nine minutes.
“We’re waiting until they’re in high school to have conversations around harassment and sexualised mistreatment,” said Lisa Damour, an author and clinical psychologist who specialises in the experiences of teenage and young girls, but by then, “the topic is 3 or 4 years old.”
There’s a benefit, she said, in “talking about these things in a controlled or displaced way before they arrive in real life.”
For Barbara Dee, the author of “Maybe He Just Likes You,” it was Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that prompted her to consider the roots of inappropriate behaviour, and she pinpointed middle school as a time when harassment became the norm.
“Maybe He Just Likes You” focuses on this experience through a young girl trying to make sense of male peers’ extra-long hugs and other nonconsensual touching, and their dismissive reactions when she calls them out.
Since publishing her book last fall, “I am hearing from kids about things that happened to them at school that they never had the words for,” Dee said. “Now they know that they can use a word like ‘sexual harassment’ or ‘consent’ or ‘boundaries.’ “ While the other recently published books focus on abuse of children by adults, she focused on harassment by other children to convey how such behaviour becomes normalised.
Lexie Bean, who wrote “The Ship We Built,” said that if children who are abused don’t have a place to talk about the experience, “it will become normal, and what is normal is what is accepted.”
Bean’s book, written from the perspective of a trans child who is abused by a family member, is based on their own experience. “I wanted to offer the internal world of these experiences because they run so deep,” Bean said. “They become a part of the walls. They become a part of the toys that witness you.”
Sonja Solter, whose debut book, “When You Know What I Know,” portrays a girl’s experience of being molested by her uncle, said that having this type of book earlier might have helped her recognise her own experience.
“Our discomfort with the fact that it exists as a horrible problem can spill out over onto survivors and them being able to speak out,” Solter said. “That’s really what I’m hoping can be broken for these types of stories.”
Black girls face both racism and sexism, and “So Done,” Paula Chase’s 2018 novel, explores that double bind. The book portrays a friendship between two girls that is compromised after one of them is touched by the other’s father. “There’s this phenomenon that sort of happens with black girls,” Chase said. “People tend to adult them too fast.”
Not every reader thinks children should be reading about sexual abuse or harassment. A “Chirp” review on Goodreads, for example, called the book well written but said, “I’m not a huge one overly fond of folks jumping on the bandwagon of the #metoo thing. I also don’t think it needs to be shoved in younger kids’ faces.”
Depicting reality in age-appropriate way
The challenge for middle-grade writers is depicting reality in an age-appropriate way. “You need to have a light touch,” said Dee, who wrote “Maybe He Just Likes You.” “You need to use humour. You need to weave in other themes.”
The main character in “Chirp” is trying to solve a mystery on her grandmother’s farm. And Solter said it was important for her to focus on the emotional fallout of the abuse rather than the act itself. “Really, for the survivor, this emotional journey their journey,” she said.
Writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Laurie Halse Anderson, whose 1999 novel “Speak” is considered a landmark Y.A. book on sexual assault, “have really been knocking at that door for a long time and banging the drum to talk about this stuff,” Messner said. “I think it has inched that door open, so that now more of us are able to raise these issues for younger readers.”
Woodson’s book, “I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You,” is about two 12-year-old girls who find a safe harbour in each other amid issues at home, but despite the protagonists’ age, it was categorised as Y.A. when it was published in 1994 for its treatment of sexual assault.
Attitudes are shifting, however, on sensitive topics in middle-grade literature. LGBTQ issues, for instance, were once taboo but have become more common. Messner said that she encountered pushback when discussing her 2016 book “The Seventh Wish,” which deals with drug addiction, in schools, but audiences have been more receptive to “Chirp” and some even wanted to share it with readers younger than middle grade.
That doesn’t mean these books need to be required reading for everyone. “I think people tend to know their kids well and should trust their gut,” Damour said. She recommends parents read the books first to ensure the content makes sense for their child.
Wendy Lamb, who edited Woodson’s book, said she sees a change in the message of these newer books. “Today’s books are saying there is more help from authorities and understanding adults,” she said. “There are more resources in your family, in your community, for you.”
This is reflected in the final scenes of “Chirp,” when the protagonist, Mia, hears from adults what children who are victimised need to know: “It’s his fault. No one else’s,” and “You were brave to speak up.”
Messner was trying to depict a reality in which kids felt safe using their voices. “Writing a story like this,” she said, “is a way for us to rewrite the script the way it should’ve gone.”