More Children’s Books Are Being Written About Sexual Assault

Children need age-appropriate access to sensitive material earlier than they're getting it

Shelf of children's books
Children's literature authors want to help kids learn about sensitive topics in an age-appropriate way.
Maurizio Siani/Getty Images

As organizations like Boy Scouts of America and USA Gymnastics continue to reckon with a massive child sexual abuse problems amid the broader #MeToo movement, children’s book authors are working to address serious themes of sexual assault and harassment in work for young readers.

“What if we could teach kids to recognize this and speak up, and tell us when someone made them uncomfortable?” Kate Messner, author of the middle-grade novel Chirp, told The New York Times.

While such topics are usually off-limits for authors writing for pre-high school readers, a growing number of middle-grade authors, who write for readers roughly between the ages of eight and 12, are beginning to act on an increased sense of urgency to convey those messages earlier.

“We’re waiting until they’re in high school to have conversations around harassment and sexualized mistreatment,” said Lisa Damour, an author and clinical psychologist. By then, however, “the topic is three or four years old.” Indeed, a 2016 study published in Children and Youth Services Review found that a third of sixth graders and more than half of seventh graders reported having experienced some form of sexualized harassment.

In an attempt to help children recognize the signs of sexual harassment before it starts, many authors, including Messner, are finding ways to incorporate those themes into works for younger children in an age-appropriate way. Messner’s Chirp chronicles a young gymnast’s encounter with inappropriate behavior from an assistant coach, without depicting any “explicit sexual assault,” the author told the Times. Other recent additions to the growing trend in children’s literature include Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You, about sexual harassment at school, and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, about two sisters who escape from their mother’s abusive boyfriend.

“Today’s books are saying there is more help from authorities and understanding adults,” said editor Wendy Lamb. “There are more resources in your family, in your community, for you.”

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