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?