What books do the rape survivors, themselves, need?

So, following Bitch Magazine’s kind of horrifying removal of Margo Lanagan’s incredible novel Tender Morsels, along with two other novels, from their list of 100 YA novels for feminist readers last week (you can read Lanagan’s response and that of others here), I feel compelled to ask the question: what books do we as children’s book people owe it to the kids who have actually been raped to provide/write?

To be clear, I don’t have any formal training in Psychology, so the short answer is: I don’t know.

But I’m going to suggest three main categories of books that kids who have lived through rape need and they roughly correspond to different stages of the healing process. Feel free to disagree, add to, suggest titles for/whatever this list.

1) For kids who are still in it–who are being raped on a regular basis, or who have been raped by a relative or friend of the family, or who come from a regularly abusive or neglectful situation, I think they need fantasy. Big, meaty, other-worldly fantasy.

Because, the world these children live in is fundamentally unsafe and as a child living in an abusive situation, there is really no way out unless a benevolent adult recognizes (which might be harder than you’d think) the child’s situation and steps in to change it. But there aren’t enough benevolent adults to go around, and most abused kids never do get rescued. So, until they’re old enough to leave, their best option is to escape when they can. Their main job at this stage is just to survive.

In terms of reading, this means they need other places they can retreat to internally. Off the top of my head, some good examples (and please feel free to add more) of these books are:

  • Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card
  • His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
  • The Earthsea books by Ursula LeGuin
  • The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper

These are all fully drawn, alternate worlds that a kid can feel like a part of. And there are many others. Historical fiction, say like the Little House on the Prairie books and the Anne books would probably work, too.

2) Kids who have been raped but are in a relatively safe environment, who are ready to start healing need narratives that provide a safe container within which they can explore their grief. By “container” I mean that a book gradually introduces the topic of rape, provides the child with a picture of the immediate emotions and repercussions stemming from the rape, and then clearly closes them again at the end. There are not loose threads or questions hanging at the end of these books. The depictions of the rape, itself, are not graphic or belabored. And ideally the books end on a very positive note.

I think that’s what you need to start the healing process: a safe, enclosed space in which to feel these dangerous emotions.

This is exactly what Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson does so well. The knowledge of what has happened to Miranda grows throughout the book giving kids enough time and space to gradually start to open up their own wounds; the emotions and repercussions immediately following the rape are well and honestly rendered providing the child with a feeling that he or she has been understood, is not alone; and the book closes with a clear sense of triumph and closure, basically closing up the child reader’s tender emotions until the next time he or she feels safe to explore these painful thoughts and events again.

I think that’s why this book has had such a profound impact on so many people. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only books of the kind that I know of. I would love to hear other books that do this. I’ve got Target by Kathleen Jeffries Johnson on my list to read as a possible male equivalent.

But I know that there aren’t enough of these books out there. Why? Because every case is different. Every kid is different. Miranda is raped by a cute older boy at a party. The boy in Target is mugged and raped by strangers. But many girls are raped by their fathers. Many children are raped by their caregivers in foster homes, etc.. Poor kids are raped. Rich kids are raped.

By not providing honest narratives for a range of experiences, we deny them the same opportunity to understand their own situation through reflection. We also send a subtle message that these children aren’t as important, that their stories need to be kept quiet. They will continue to receive these messages in a thousand ways for the rest of their lives, most likely–the children’s book world is not responsible for this. But we can be part of the solution.

3) But after these books, I think there also needs to be a stage of books that doesn’t close so neatly, that asks some deeper questions and portrays some of the more complex and difficult emotions and repercussions of rape. This is because eventually there is life after rape. It’s not just about “healing,” about learning to speak again. Acts of violence change us in complicated ways. The child, particularly the older teen, who has survived violence and started on the path to healing deserves more complex rape narratives that explore life after rape/the larger context of the rape/the more politically uncorrect reactions to rape.

I can only think of two novels that I’ve read that do this. One is Tender Morsels and the other is a wonderful novel called The Dollmage by Martine Leavitt. It’s hard to really encapsulate what these two novels do because they are both complex and difficult novels with comparatively open endings. But they both show the rape within the larger context of the character’s life, and they show the character’s life and actions after and as a result of the rape–not just the immediate terror and pain that results from rape. They both portray larger, darker, and more complex consequences of the rape than terror.

I’m not going to try to list all the things these novels teach or why they’re important because they’re too complex for that. But the main thing is that, though they are both fantasy, they are really emotionally honest about the emotions surrounding and consequences of rape. These books don’t really exist to help a child feel better about what has happened to her. They exist to help teach him or her about what rape actually means. How it changes things.

These aren’t the books for a child who has just been raped and can’t even admit it out loud yet. These are the books for the child who now needs to grow and learn from what has been done to him or her.

I think we owe kids books on all of these levels. What do you all think? What other books have you read that could help rape survivors? (Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams Garcia is also on my reading list to see where it fits.)

Thanks for stopping by and chiming in.

Next Week’s Topic: Why are there so few gay books for kids?



About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Book Lists, Current Events, Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What books do the rape survivors, themselves, need?

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  6. sarahtuttle says:

    I agree that there are a lot of types of books that rape survivors, adult or child, can find useful, but I also think that it’s very important that each survivor choose their own books to read. I think the main message of this post, to me, is that books for young people should explore the full range of young peoples’ experiences, even (or perhaps especially) when the topics are difficult. That way, there will be books for every reader.

    • pamwatts says:

      Oh, I definitely agree, Sarah. I in know way meant that we should dictate books to particular kids. But I think that there are different books that are more likely to be useful to different kids at different stages of the grieving process. And, indeed, I think it’s our job to make sure that, exactly, there are are books that explore the full range of emotions.

  7. Susan says:

    things will continue to change as they have for years…and we will get more and more books on difficult subjects…and remember what we both know of how “normal” people do NOT want to deal with these topics!

    unless the Moral Majority takes over and bans everything but the Bible!

  8. Pingback: About the Term “Triggering” | Strong in the Broken Places

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