Do we need Children's Books on Domestic Violence?
Updated: Oct 27
This article first appeared on The Bookwallis, a Facebook page I write on with 2 other educators, we covered themes by 'Voicing the silent(ces) in Children’s Literature', in October 2019
1 in 3!!
1 in 3 women in India face Domestic Violence.
When I first heard this, I could not believe it!
Whatever the numbers may be, domestic violence is not an issue to brush under the carpet, consider a private matter or one that needs to be hushed. Yet with so much social stigma attached to it, we rarely ever even acknowledge domestic violence exists. 1 in 3 means that it probably occurs to people we see around us. Do we just believe that we didn’t see or hear what we think we did? Do we hush to save ourselves embarrassment or to save the pride of the person experiencing it? Are we fooling ourselves?
If so many women face Domestic Violence, it means that there are as many, if not more children who witness this as a way of life. Children may experience it first hand at home or second hand when they hear a neighbour yell at his wife, or an uncle throw a tantrum and chuck away the food cooked by an aunt, or they may hear about it from a friend who is experiencing it at home.
We may not want our children to hear that Domestic Violence even exists. So why should authors write about such a subject? Why should our children read about it?
Let’s start with children who have witnessed Domestic Violence at home:
1. Books will help them see themselves in the story, giving them the comfort that there are others who are experiencing what they are, that they are not alone.
2. When they see in the story, that a child has spoken about what they’ve witnessed/ experienced and has sought help, it gives them some direction about what they could do.
3. When we read stories about Domestic Violence, through the narrative we send out a message that this is not normal, this is not acceptable, this is not what everyone experiences. We show children that they are not responsible for what they are witnessing, that living with fear is not normal.
4. Studies have shown that children who witness violence at home are more likely to become either perpetrators or victims of violence. The cycle exists. We need to help break this cycle. Books are a gentle medium through which we could open up channels of communication.
For children who are lucky enough not to have witnessed violence at home:
1. Children talk to each other. By being aware of domestic violence, we empower children with the knowledge that it does happen in some homes and give them the antennae to suss out when a friend or another child may be experiencing domestic violence and send out a message that it is ok or rather imperative to talk to an adult, either a parent, teacher or counsellor about their concerns for their friends.
2. We encourage all children to empathetically support each other.
3. By talking about Domestic Violence to all children, we help them understand what is acceptable and not acceptable in relationships, empowering them for their future adult relationships.
As always, books open up a path to dialogue about Domestic violence, a topic most often silenced...as an advertisement that once ran on television...BELL BAJAO.
When you want to introduce a book on domestic violence to children, it is important to read it yourself to anticipate the responses and questions that will come your way. PICTURE BOOKS:
1. BEHIND THE LIE by Asha Nehemiah; illustrated by Aindri C
Asha Nehemiah tells the story of two young children Ramesh and Valli who along with their mother live in fear of their father, learning tricks to cover up the situation at home. The story helps children see that the violence at home is not their fault and shows them that there are people around who will support them, if they only reach out for help. A sensitively written book, which offers us a platform from which we can talk about this difficult to broach subject with children. Listen to Asha Nehemiah talk about her book here: https://www.facebook.com/thebookwallis/videos/666201267435148/
2. HEAR MY ROAR by Gillian Watts; illustrated by Ben Hodson Papa Bear loves Orsa Bear, or at least it seems like that sometimes. But most of the time it seems like Papa Bear is always angry, especially after he’s had a lot of 'jackberry' wine. Orsa cannot understand why he acts the way he does. When things get even worse after a long winter’s sleep, Mama and Orsa Bear reach out to Dr. Owl who helps them to work towards breaking the cycle of violence. A simple non-threatening read for young children.
3. ANGER IS OKAY, VIOLENCE IS NOT by Julie K. Frederico This is a book for the youngest listener, using simple words and illustrations, to show that we all feel anger but that there are healthy ways to let it out. By highlighting adult responses in anger, it shows that domestic violence is not okay.
4. A TERRIBLE THING HAPPENED by Margaret M. Holmes; illustrated by Cary Pillo This is a book for every child who has witnessed a violent or traumatic incident. It does not specify an incident, but helps children realise what they are feeling is ok and how talking about it will help them feel better.
5. THE STAR OUTSIDE MY WINDOW by Onjali Q. Rauf Astronomy-mad, ten year old Aniyah and her brother Noah, have been put in foster care after their Mother ‘disappeared’, while playing a rather big game of ‘hide-and-seek’ from their father. They were in the ‘hotel that wasn’t a hotel’ when they heard the news, and they are not sure if their Dad will ever find them, although they are happy not to be alert to all his ‘triggers’ Aniyah, is reassured by something her mother once told her…that people with the brightest hearts never truly leave…they become the brightest stars in the sky, and watch over everyone they had to leave behind. So when she hears on the news that a new bright star is spotted acting strangely in the sky, defying nature’s odds, Aniyah is sure it's her Mum who is finding the best place in the sky to watch over her and Noah. When a Public competition is announced to name the new star, Aniyah is determined to make sure that it is named after her mother. So, on Halloween, begins a hair-brained, mad-cap adventure dressed in costumes, riding sneaked away bikes all the way to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, from Waverly, a village near Oxford. A heartbreaking story, which is so sensitively written, throwing in adventure and humour along the way.
6. ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly-Hunt Carley goes into foster care with the Murphy family after suffering from a severe attack by her stepdad that leaves her mother seriously injured and recuperating in the hospital. She experiences a loving, stable family life with the Murphys, a life that she’s never known. While Carly learns that there can be a different kind of family life, she learns from Mrs.Murphy that the cycle of violence can be broken, and that everyone deserves a kind and loving relationship.
How would I use these books?
I would have these books on the shelves of the library and in the counsellors room in school. Counsellors and teachers should be made aware of the existence of books on themes like these, so that they could recommend them to children who may need them, and add them to reading lists for every child to read.
1. Divide the class into 2 groups. Give one group a chart with the word ‘domestic’ and another group a chart with the word ‘violence’. Children write the synonyms to each of these words that may come to mind. Once done put the two charts together. Do the words on the ‘violence’ chart go along with those on the ‘domestic’ chart...do they ‘belong’ together? Use these words and the unlikelihood of pairing the two sets together to start discussions around ‘domestic violence’. This is an activity that I would do with children aged 10+ Alternate words that could be used are Love/ violence, family/ violence, home/ violence.
2. For high school students: From all the books they’ve read, movies they’ve watched, relationships around them...what is a loving relationship? Using the old “Love is…’ cartoons by Kim Casali, students create posters on the theme…’Love is.../Love is not…’.
3. Exploring the different forms of domestic violence...physical, emotional, psychological, financial, verbal, intimidation, control and isolation. Hand out strips of paper with examples of these behaviours mixed with examples of behaviours in a healthy relationship. Children can work in pairs to discuss whether these are examples of domestic violence or healthy relationships. At the end of an assigned time frame children share their thoughts and pin the strip of paper to an appropriate chart. Allow the chart to stay up on the wall for a few days, during which children can add post-it note about whether they agree or disagree against each point and suggest whether it stays on the domestic violence chart or healthy relationship chart.
4. Letter writing to the characters. (Behind the lie, Hear my roar or the chapter books.) Children can choose to write a letter to any character in the book. What would they say to them? They could also choose to be any character and write to another in the book. A character writing to a reader justifying their actions. These letters can be shared within the class and used to start a discussion.
As I sat down to write this post, I struggled with guilt as I recalled a few instances of what may have been DV. I remember hearing about something that disturbed me, although the person mentioned it nonchalantly. Was she looking for an outlet, and did my silence block her out? I remember witnessing something quite disturbing, but was paralysed and actually denied what I saw. But a few moments later, when I went to where I thought I saw it happen, the signs were plain to see...that it had occurred. This was years ago, yet I think about that lady often and wonder where she is and what her situation is now. Years of social conditioning that we shouldn't interfere, to mind our own business, had numbed me. I wish we had books then, as there are now, which could have given me some direction on how to act, and the empathy to do so.
I hope these books do empower those reading them.
October happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness month.