You will be believed.
You are not broken.
These are messages a much younger me needed to hear, and didn’t, until far later in my life.
For twelve year old me, and for others in similar situations, I wrote those feelings into my own book, Riverland — a portal fantasy about domestic violence for middle grade readers.
Riverland is about sisters who learn to become the heroes of their own story. Who begin to understand that there is good anger and bad anger, and that learning the difference is more important than counting their feelings away. Who learn to rescue themselves.
I felt compelled to write this story, as I hoped it would be there on the shelf when someone needed it. A story that says: you will be believed. You are not broken.
And one more.
You are not alone. This is a message I was trying to send with Riverland, to my readers.
The surprise is, there are messages a much older me also needed to hear. But these are messages with a sword’s edge. In reaching out to me, and saying them, the writers of those messages are saying both you are not alone and this happened to me too.
To be able to say this is to have been through trauma, or to know someone who has, and I wish no one had to experience that firsthand, as much as I know it’s important for people to understand, and acknowledge that this kind of thing happens more often that we wish it did.
But wishing these things away — including by wanting to protect young characters — especially female characters — from risk and danger… is something that’s happening. While fairly common for young boy characters to experience risk, trauma, and abuse in popular fiction — Harry Potter, Charlie Bucket (the Roald Dahl line of child risk in popular fiction is a big one) — the events in Riverland are generating questions. Why, someone asked me, didn’t you make one of them brothers? Another: Why don’t their parents tell them it’s not their fault? Another: How can this really be happening?
(These are good questions and good conversations to have, by the way. And I’m having them.)
Still, the old fears kick in when that occurs. You won’t be believed. You are alone. You are broken. I’m twelve again, reading everything I can find, hoping to pull myself into a new, safer world. Or, I’m older, and experiencing some constructive frustration mixed with understanding over the fact that, in wishing the kinds of stories about trauma away, by wanting to protect kids from tough things — is a way to pretend it’s not happening. When it is. Which puts kids in danger, rather than protecting them.
Yesterday, I received a letter. I’ve been given permission to share it with you, anonymized. It is one of many that I will treasure from this experience of writing this book, because it means that, no matter what, I did my job for this one reader. And that means everything.
Here it is:
I wanted to reach out with a personal thank you for writing this book.
As someone who grew up in a home where there was (among other things) a lot of domestic violence, reading Eleanor and Mike’s story was especially difficult and especially cathartic for me. The moment that stands out the most is when their grandmother comes for dinner and Eleanor and Mike follow her to the door. She asks them a question–gives them a chance to break house magic, their secrets, to say that they need help–but the girls are quiet. Caught. That moment played out in my life countless times. It’s something that I still feel the echoes of as an adult and I don’t think I’d ever seen it portrayed in a book with children before. I cried for Eleanor, for Mike, for me. It was the kind of cry I needed.
I also appreciate that you didn’t take an easy ending. As much as I wanted their Gran to come to Riverland and help save the day, she didn’t. As much as I wanted Mrs. Sarti to swoop in and take the girls out of their home, she didn’t. Just like no one did that for me or countless other children. There’s an honesty in how you handled the violence in this book–never gratuitous, but simply honest about how many people look the other way or are bound by the limitations of their systems so abuse like this keeps going and going and going.
Eleanor and Mike made it out in the end, and that last line about how it’s okay if their real parents don’t come back for them–it gave my heart such bittersweet relief. What a beautiful ending for a beautiful book.
I’m so grateful that I read RIVERLAND for my childhood self and my adult self and my writer self who is so inspired by this story and how you handled it. I imagine this was not an easy story to share, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you shared it anyway. Growing up in an environment like that can do strange things to how you see and value yourself. By loving Eleanor and Mike it helped me love myself better and be more generous and kind with the place where my cracks show through. I’ve no doubt this book will have an incredible impact on so many others as well. Thank you.
That is the kind of letter authors print out and put on their bathroom mirror to remind themselves they did good. Thank you, anonymous reader, for sending me this wonderful gift.
“There are different kinds of anger. There is good mad, and bad mad,” a friend tweeted one day while reading Riverland. Hearing that heartline sent back to me was the same thing. It was a note, a rope, a lifeline to my twelve-year-old self, who is still trying to sort things out, even as adult me sends this book out into the world, to all of us, saying
We are not broken by our experiences.
We will be believed when we choose to speak.
We are not alone.