By: Jacqui Higgins-Dailey
According to rainn.org (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “one in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult,” and 93% of child sex abuse perpetrators are an acquaintance or family members. Child sex abuse is a serious problem but how do we talk to kids about it? How do we give children the tools and language to understand how to reach out if they are victims or if they know someone who is? There is no easy answer. One way that author Tony Abbot chose was the route of storytelling. Sharing stories can provide both a mirror and a window.
The Summer of Owen Todd, by Tony Abbot, is the story of 11-year-old Owen being sexually abused by his babysitter. His best friend Sean knows about it but doesn’t know what to do or how to tell, especially since Owen threatens to hurt himself if Sean tells anyone. This is not light reading and potentially not a book you want a child reading without creating space for check-ins and discussion with a caring adult. However, it’s also an important book that addresses a topic that is rarely addressed in children’s literature- and a reality that many children face.
When this title came across my desk because a parent was concerned about a book of a young boy being sexually abused, I was not surprised. The parent requested that the title be moved to the young adult section because it was inappropriate for children, so I did some research.
The Summer of Owen Todd has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, among other highly favorable reviews from other trade publications, readers and librarians. It was also listed as one of School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2017. The title circulated more than 400 times in our collection with no previous request for removal or reconsideration. Given all this information and that the title was crucially important for children to be able to access, I decided to leave it in the children’s section. The book was written for children in grades 4-6 and although that is an older elementary/middle school age, it is not a young adult book. The writing and style is clearly middle grade. I wanted to make sure the audience it was intended for were able to access it.
In an article from School Library Journal from December 2017, Kiera Parrot has a discussion with Tony Abbot about the sensitive topics covered in The Summer of Owen Todd and he notes, “If this is the first book for middle graders to deal with the topic, we’ve waited too long. My hope is that older readers will discuss the book with their families so that younger brothers and sisters are made appropriately aware of the reality. Parents, teachers, librarians—yes, they should be concerned… I would urge them to read the book with particular readers in mind and decide who is ready for the story. Of course, this says nothing about the child who may need a way and a language to talk about a problem that nearby adults aren’t aware of, a need and language that books like this might supply.”
This is the central reason that having this title in the children’s section, available and accessible to children who may need the resources, tools, language and stories about this type of abuse. It’s never easy to talk about and of course, there may be some children that stumble onto a book like The Summer of Owen Todd without realizing what it’s about, but hopefully this will open up discussions about appropriate adult/child relationships, behavior and what to do if you think a friend might be in a similar situation.
Have you ever dealt with a request for removal or reconsideration for a book that deals with abuse and sensitive sexual subjects? What was your approach? How do you talk to the parents, adults or children about your decision?
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey has been a public librarian for 10 years and has been an adjunct faculty librarian for the last two. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and a masters in library science. She currently selects the children and teen materials as a collection development librarian for Phoenix Public Library. She loves to read, write, figure skate and travel.