For the past year, I’ve been forced by the enticing world of graduate school to cut back on my YA reading, but recently I’ve had a break between classes and took full advantage. As I welcomed my long-missing friend, the YA novel, back into my reading life, I happened to pick up three books in a row that I found well-written but quite disconcerting. All three involved abuse within families. Two of these also just happen to be on our state high-school reading list (the Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award), which intrigues me.
I didn’t have these books on a list, but simply scanned the shelves in the YA section of my library and picked out something I thought would be interesting. They are, indeed, interesting, but more importantly they made me think about why this theme of violence within families is so appealing to teens. What kind of world are they subjected to that adults may not truly see? Why has the home, which should be the safe-haven, the place where every teen is accepted for who he or she is and is loved unconditionally, become a place of secrets and lies and unspeakable abuse?
Bitterblue (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nomination), Kristin Cashore’s long-awaited sequel to Graceling, began my trek into family violence. This book is a treat for those who love involved plots and entangled characters. However, as Bitterblue works to discover the deeds of her father, who left the people of her city, and especially her castle, scarred and broken, she finds his deeds to be far more horrible than she had ever imagined. Leck, the former king, committed violence against many of his subjects in a variety of ways, but also against his wife and daughter. As a fantasy piece, it’s almost easy to dismiss this as being a part of a fantastical world — not reality. Unfortunately, for many teens this is all too real.
Swati Avasthi’s Split (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults and 2011 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults) lead me further down the road of family violence. The characters of this piece are so real and intriguing that the violence becomes all the more unsettling. The reader accompanies Jace on his quest to break free from an abusive father, who happens to be a judge in Chicago, while attempting to deal with the guilt and pain of leaving behind his mother, whom his father abuses with truly malevolent acts. Joining Jace on his journey is his older brother, Christian, who left home several years earlier to escape Dad’s wrath. Most heart-breaking is the exploration of the life that abused families live and the choices some of them make.
Last in this group came Because I am Furniture (2010 Best Books for Young Adults) by Thalia Chaltas. Written in verse, this book delves into the broken relationships within Anke’s family. The title lends itself to the saddest aspect of this book: Anke feels unloved by her father because he ignores her, rather than abusing her as he does her siblings. Chaltas’s writing reminded me a lot of Ellen Hopkins, as her beautiful verse is juxtaposed with the hideous reality of social issues — in this case domestic violence.
The more I thought about this trend in YA novels, other books crept into my mind. Ellen Hopkins’s Identical explores the horror of sexual abuse, and C. J. Omololu’s Dirty Little Secrets reveals the truth about hoarding as a type of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, this is the world we, and our teens, live in. How can we use YA novels to help break the silence and the cycle that surrounds domestic violence?
— Michelle Blank, currently reading Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard