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A delicate balance: taking on the tough issues in YA fiction

(illustration: Byron Eggenschwiler)

(illustration: Byron Eggenschwiler)

Three authors discuss how – and why – they write about sexual assault and abusive relationships in their new YA novels

With one current trend in YA fiction being a move toward realism and examinations of contemporary issues, it comes as no surprise that a handful of titles appearing this spring deal with topical themes of sexual assault, rape culture, and abusive relationships. High-profile cases – from Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd to celebrity scandals involving Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby – have brought the issues to the forefront of public attention, pervading traditional and social media, and pushing society into a conversation that is long overdue.

The reasons authors have for taking on these heavy subjects, and how they approach writing about them, are as varied as the real-life experiences of people who have been assaulted and abused.

Ontario author Courtney Summers (Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are) is known for writing YA that doesn’t flinch from difficult subjects, including bullying and suicide. Still, Summers says she approached writing her latest novel, All the Rage (out with St. Martin’s Press in April) – about a girl from the poor side of town who is raped by the local sheriff’s son – very cautiously.

“When you write about the topics that I do, you want to be conscious of what your work is adding to a larger conversation,” says Summers. “We need to talk about rape culture, consent, victim-blaming, and how and why we fail victims and survivors of sexual violence.”

Karen Krossing’s Punch Like a Girl (Orca Book Publishers) is also slated for an April release. Unlike Summers’ protagonist Romy, who is friendless, regularly bullied,­ and ostracized even before her assault, Krossing’s novel centres on a fairly average, middle-class girl named Tori, who lives in the suburbs, plays soccer, and is neither the most nor least popular girl in school.

“Let’s not assume that sexual assault is restricted to people in certain jobs, with certain social or ethnic backgrounds, or within certain financial groups,” says Krossing. “That’s exactly what I was going for: a sense that this kind of sexual assault can happen to anyone.”

While the rapes in Punch Like a Girl and All the Rage both occur before the novels themselves begin, the abuse in Winnipeg writer Jodi Carmichael’s YA debut unfolds over the course of the story. “[It] creeps into their relationship in slow, subtle ways, which is actually quite typical,” says Carmichael.

In Forever Julia (Great Plains Publications, May) the title character is emotionally abused and manipulated by her first boyfriend, a popular athlete she thinks she’s unworthy of. He pressures her to have sex when she’s said she’s not ready, then shifts the blame, telling Julia that her “issues” are at fault, not him.