Discussion Post: Child Abuse in YA and MG Novels

Child Abuse

Although middle grade and young adult books have become increasingly open to getting “darker” and taking on serious issues in the past few years, many of them seem reluctant to take on the topic of child abuse with any thoughtfulness.  (For instance, I published a post in April answering some readers’ questions about why Cinderella can’t “just leave” her abusive stepmother and asking why more authors don’t explore the probably psychological effects of abuse on Cinderella characters.)  Far too often. children’s books gloss over abuse, either rendering the offending parents so terrible their behavior is apparently “funny,” or implying that the abuse going on in the story isn’t “bad enough” to really affect the main character.  I think this does a huge disservice to readers, especially those young readers who may be in abusive homes and see novels making light of situations similar to theirs.

“Ridiculous” Abuse in Middle Grade

There’s a subsection of “quirky” middle grade books that love abusive adult characters.  In these stories, the protagonist’s parents (or maybe teacher) are so horribly, terribly awful that the author believes this makes the situation comically absurd.  If an adult doesn’t feed their child for a week, that’s abusive.  But if an adult feeds their child only moldy bread topped with the gummy worms they have an inexplicable fascination with and houses their child in a drafty attic with only a single blanket and the resident cockroach Melville for company…why, that’s just so unlikely it’s funny!  Or so these books seems to think.

After reading a number of different takes on this theme, I’m beginning to find it not so funny or quirky or charming.  It isn’t dark humor.  It’s just portraying abusive parents as oddballs who aren’t entirely responsible for their actions and suggesting to readers that child abuse is something to make light of.  Now, I can’t speak for every reader or every author.  Maybe imagining a weird extreme of abusive behavior helps some people suffering from it cope with their own situation.  Maybe a child can sit back and think, “Well, at least I’m not stuck eating moldy bread with gummy worms all the time!  Now that would be awful.”  But I think these portrayals suggest to readers who haven’t been victims of abuse that the situation isn’t so serious, and that’s problematic.

The Abuse That Didn’t Matter

The “quirky” abusive parents are less a trend in YA. Here, I’ve noticed stories tend to skim over abuse, or just present it as a plot point that helps move the story along, without there being any current or lasting effects on the protagonist who’s suffered from the abuse.  This is particularly true of YA fairy tale retellings, which is why I wrote the post about Cinderella.  It’s also a problem with some “Snow White” retellings, where the Snow White character apparently suffers from absolutely no trauma after the fact her stepmother tried to murder her.  I stopped reading Stitching Snow entirely after the protagonist mentioned that event in her life as if it were a trivial thing that didn’t really matter, beyond the fact she didn’t really want to go have a friendly tea and chat with her stepmother.

Acting as if child abuse isn’t important, or as if it’s normal for children and teens to be basically unaffected by abuse besides having a general dislike for the offending parents, is a rather ignorant portrayal of abuse.  And I thing it’s harmful to imply to readers that if they are victims of abuse that people who aren’t stoic in the face of abuse are weak.  There are many ways of reacting to and coping with abuse, and I’d like to see YA explore this.  Readers have become more vocal speaking out against using rape and sexual assault as simple plot movers.  I think it’s time we bring the same request for complexity to child abuse in novels.

The Happily Ever After

Finally, I’d also like to see more variety in the endings of novels that represent child abuse.  In so many of them (though, again, this is particularly true of middle grade), the protagonist embarks on a wild adventure in the novel that ultimately ends with some kindly adult adopting them and bringing them into a better life.  This is hopeful.  It’s a nice wish.  And I think it’s something many children suffering from abuse would like to imagine.  However, it’s not that realistic.

Now, I don’t believe that “realistic” always means “dark,” and I’m not suggesting all these stories need to have depressing endings.  (I like escapism and happy endings as much as anyone.)  However, I think that, for many children, the abuse ends because they get old enough to move out of the house, not when some previously unknown rich aunt whisks into their lives and takes them away.  Additionally, the emotional toll doesn’t stop just because a child was removed from an abusive household.  I’d love to see more books explore what it looks like for a child who isn’t magically rescued, and I’d love to see more that tackle the psychological issues that continue to exist even if a child or teen does get a happy ending.

What do you think? What portrayals of child abuse have you seen in middle grade and YA books?  Did they seem realistic to you?

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20 thoughts on “Discussion Post: Child Abuse in YA and MG Novels

  1. jkimexploring says:

    I would totally read a more realistic portrayal, because especially when it’s the happily ever after it’s basically a fairy tale and there are so many books that do ignore the psychological effects and I think that would seep into their relationships with friends and significant others as well, not something they can just forget about when they are away from home.

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    • Briana says:

      Exactly! I don’t mind some happy endings. I like variety in books, and I think it’s nice to dream there will be a happy ending for some people in this situation. However, I’ve basically seen only happy endings in children’s books, and I think it would be helpful for authors to explore a more realistic outcome for characters.

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! I was thinking about Harry Potter and wondering why Harry didn’t seem more affected by the Dursleys. I guess he got away to boarding school at eleven, and the Dursleys were basically scared of him during the summers after that, so things weren’t quite as bad for him as they had been before he went to Hogwarts. Alternately, his problems with Voldemort were way more pressing, so the Dursleys’ ill treatment of him seemed irrelevant in comparison….

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        I always wondered that, too. Harry was locked up like he was a broom in a closet, which always bothered me. And every time we had to re-visit the Durlsey’s household, I felt sick for Harry. No one seems to acknowledge that what happened to him was child abuse. I’ve seen abuse mentioned a ton of times in regards to Twilight, but I think what happened to Harry is more of an issue than an overprotective vampire. At least vampires are not real, but people like the Dursley’s are and that’s the problem. You would think there would’ve been more mention of how Harry felt about their treatment. Instead, it seemed to just roll right off his shoulder like nothing happened. I couldn’t see that happening in real life unless the child was so traumatized they managed to blackout that part of their life, but I still think that would be a bit of a stretch.

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        • Krysta says:

          I sometimes wonder if Harry’s exploits could be a result of the abuse he faced? Maybe him breaking all the rules and ignoring authority is his way of acting out? And he doesn’t trust most of the adults enough to tell them what he’s doing or what he suspects. (Notably, when he does, for example, tell McGonagall the Stone is in danger, an adult dismisses his concerns.) I think maybe his reluctance to talk to adults and his disregard for what he perceives as pointless or stupid rules could be interpreted as a result of how the Dursleys treated him. He certainly couldn’t trust them and he was probably used to finding ways to get around the silly rules they made up for him.

          Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            That’s a good point. Now that you mention it, that makes perfect sense as to why Harry was reluctant to trust adults and why he acted out so much. I always thought he’s just a kid being a kid, but I’m sure the Dursley’s had a lot to do with why he disregarded the direction of authority figures.

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            • Krysta says:

              Though, to be fair, he didn’t have a lot of great authority figures in his life, even after he went to Hogwarts….

              And the rule breaking does seem sort of a staple for children’s literature–how else do you have a kid save the world? It’s not like the adults would allow an eleven-year-old face to down a super villain if they knew about it. But maybe in Harry’s case it makes more sense for him to get so far in rule breaking before he agrees to ask for help.

              I think, though, that his decision to buy all the candy when he first gets on the Hogwarts Express also speaks to his upbringing. He’s never had pocket money before so he buys literally everything. Yes, most kids with money will buy a lot of junk food when they have no parental supervision–I have seen kids walk out of a store with three brownies, some M&M’s, and a soda for “lunch”–but not everything. I think his relationship to money is something the series then failed to explore, however. He goes from having nothing to being rich for life and all he does is buy a lot of candy and then it’s over?

              I would expect him to have more of a difficult time to adjusting to having money. He’s used to having hand-me-downs and Dudley’s leftover possessions. If I were him, I’d go on a major shopping spree to buy a bunch of clothes that fit, get new glasses, etc. But I’d also have intense guilt about it. You know, is it really okay to spend money like this? Shouldn’t I save it for something more important? What if it all goes away tomorrow? It’s not easy to adjust your mindset when you’ve been living with nothing your whole life, but Harry seems mostly unaffected by the change.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Briana says:

              He was with Hagrid the first time in Diagon Alley though, and there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity to shop once you’re at Hogwarts. Though I don’t know why the wizarding world wouldn’t have their version of online shopping with owl delivery.

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            • Krysta says:

              I assume they’d have mail order catalogues or something. And the movies at least suggest that Harry starts wearing proper clothes, so he’s getting stuff from somewhere.

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  2. Nish says:

    I get so revolted by those stories with age or status difference romances in YA books. Thinking of Bella and Edward from Twilight (yeah, he may still look like a teen, but he has centuries of life experience), then there were a couple of other books where there was a scene between a student and a teacher. It was a fantasy novel, but still marketed for young girls and boys. Unacceptable!

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    • Briana says:

      Good point! I was thinking mainly in terms of parents/guardians as abusers for this post, but you’re right that presenting adults (or incredibly old supernatural characters who ARE adults mentally and only LOOK like teens) is another troubling trend. I don’t want to say that books have to moralize, but I do think YA authors should be responsible with the influence they have over young readers. Romanticizing student/teacher erotic relationships in a novel could lead teens to think such a relationship “isn’t that bad” in real life. I know that if I were an author, I would not want to be responsible for making a teen believe that.

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  3. SarahClare says:

    Sometimes I forget how I used to use books so heavily to escape my reality. And I think that my younger self might have appreciated a HEA or slightly unrealistic or exaggersted approach because it gave hope and also a chance to experience the outcomes that I could imagine (like a ‘only in my wildest dreams’ type of thing)

    So I’m often torn about whether it should be made more ‘real’ or not. It’s still giving a voice to something that those suffering under it can’t possibly have, and still offering a safe place to work through it too.

    So I don’t know. And as much as I want to whale on books like Twilight etc. there is still something there that obviously struck a chord at the right time. I do think it’s encouraging that so many YA readers who were young adults at the time of its publication can now see how unhealthy the situation was.

    Aye, me. Sometimes figuring through this stuff is hard on the ol’ noggin. *knocks head with knuckles*

    Great post though!! You’ve given me much to think on. 🙂

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! I think the happy endings are useful for that reason too. Books can be very good for providing hope or escapism. It’s just that happy endings often seem like the only endings in these books, and that seems limiting. I think a few books that empathize with what some children actually experience–a story that doesn’t end when a rich, glamorous aunt shows up to adopt them–could be comforting in its own way. I think we need both kinds of books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SarahClare says:

        Oh for sure! I feel like the healthiest thing is to have a good balance of different approaches on offer. I think the HEA is something almost so ingrained in storytelling that removing it can feel like breaking some kind of unspoken law.

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  4. jrcreaden says:

    I LOVE how you address the unrealistic HEA for abuse victims. Trauma, of any kind, has lingering effects, and it’s just as important to showcase how healing is an ongoing process as it is to shed light on the trauma itself. Thank you so much for this!

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    • Briana says:

      Thank you. I understand the impulse to have an optimistic ending and provide hope for characters/readers, but I do think that’s sometimes at the expense of recognizing that many abuse victims don’t get that, and when they do it’s not as if everything is suddenly 100% fine and there’s no process of healing.

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  5. delusionsofsanityblog says:

    Excellent post. Very thought-provoking.

    “…as if it’s normal for children and teens to be basically unaffected by abuse besides having a general dislike for the offending parents, is a rather ignorant portrayal of abuse.”

    This is so true. And yet, readers seem to expect that characters will just one day accomplish enough feats or achieve enough goals that they’ll forget the abuse happened and, consequently, just move on with their now-awesome lives. I had a critiquer get annoyed and stop reading my novel because the MC still struggled with an ingrained sense of un-worth due to a lifetime of emotional abuse. The critiquer essentially said, “Look, she’s done enough things that she shouldn’t care what her mother would think about her. Her mom’s out of the picture and doesn’t matter.” *facepalm*

    So thank you for this post and for addressing a sensitive topic in a very honest manner.

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    • Briana says:

      That’s so unfortunate your reviewer thought it was unrealistic. I think the problem is that we have a sense of narrative “fitness” that, of course, the character will get over it. It’s “logical” that good events would cancel the old ones. But it doesn’t really work like that. I’ve read some adults’ reflections on abuse who basically said they never got over it, that at fifty years old sometimes they just cry about emotional abuse from their childhood even though logically they know it’s over, they have good lives now, etc. It can be very damaging long-term, and I think more people need to recognize that.

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