Review of the Day: You Ruined It by Anastasia Higginbotham
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You hand a child a book. No act, good or bad, is without its own set of consequences. What are the consequences of handing a child a book? You engage their minds outside of your own influence. This book, whatever it might be, is now inside your child’s head. You have no control over that, aside from taking the book away again. We don’t think through this process every time we give a kid a book. Heck, we probably don’t think about it pretty much ever except, that is, when we encounter a title that is beyond the norm. And “beyond the norm” may as well be Anastasia Higginbotham’s personal motto. Her books tackle subject matter that usually appears in titles written for kids by people with “Ph.D” after their name. For the record, 99% of the time you see a picture book written by someone flourishing their professional degrees, the book is crap. Anastasia’s books? Not crap. Not even close to crap. Quite good, actually. And here they are tackling divorce, death, sexual education, white privilege, and, now, sexual abuse by trusted family members. “Ordinary terrible things.” Apparently Anastasia doesn’t believe in going the easy route. If one were to rank her books by level of difficulty, this might edge out Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, if barely. Books for children are not a monolith. They have a wide variety of purposes and jobs. Determining those purposes? That is up to you.
“This book does not depict the violence that has happened.” When we first see Dawn she’s playing with her dolls. But as she does so she’s going over this mishmash of feelings. “they say to tell.” She knows that and she did. She told how her beloved older cousin, someone she’d trusted for years and often hung out with alone, sexually abused her by the creek where they would go. And now her brother Billie wants to kill their cousin. And her mom tells her outright that she can never go anywhere with him ever again. Then the book becomes about what Dawn needs and what’s best for her. She wants an apology but she’s not going to get it. No one wants to go to the police because “why should i tell the story a thousand times to people who need me to prove he did it?” She can’t prove anything. She just knows it happened. Is jail even the right answer? What is right is that Dawn’s family is there to help and support her. The book ends with a wide range of ideas, topics, questions, and more.
Most books on tough topics like abuse follow a prescribed format. There’s a story at the start, possibly with a little introduction. Then at the end there’s another little note and then a list of resources for parents and teachers. It’s neat. It’s clean. It’s a format. It doesn’t appear to require much in the way of thought. You Ruined It isn’t like that. It’s not neat. It’s messy. It’s messy because this topic is messy. There are absolutes and no absolutes and the two can get all mixed up together. It’s a book that’s surprisingly easy to dip in and out of. There’s a lot of stuff at the end, but it’s messy too. Messy can be good. It can check in with the reader and ask how they feel. It can give context, or point out elements you might have missed. There’s no bibliography but there is a list of books, people, and at least one organization. The book itself is also not your standard picture book. It’s small, for starters. A mere 6 X 8 inches. It’s longer than a picture book too. Where they average between 32-40 pages, this is 96. And the story inside? Filled with a messy story where the truest part may be the final statement: “i am the one i can trust.”
Usually I can predict why one reader or another might object to a particular children’s book. This one is trickier to ascertain. So much depends on the personality of each person who encounters it. If it’s slipped in with other children’s books without explanation or context, I could see some parents being upset if their kids stumbled on it. The fact that it’s even talking about this subject will offend the sensibilities of the people that believe that children’s books are a haven and not a place for complex conversations. Still others might be upset, like Billie, that there is no “justice”. Dawn doesn’t want to involve the police in any way, and there will definitely be people who don’t like that. What does or does not happen to Dawn’s cousin is left open ended. We know that his parents reject the accusation and that it hasn’t been reported anywhere. But while Dawn may be on the path to finding closure we, the readers, won’t get that neat, pat ending we’re used to. This book is about treating the child who went through this. It isn’t interested in offering solutions for what to do about the perpetrator (aside from Billie’s girlfriend’s “binding spell”), though it does solicit ideas. I myself am not sure how to feel about this. The book says at the start that “The abuse is not excused or allowed to continue,” which is only true to a certain extent. After all, maybe the abuse of Dawn has stopped but what about the future victims of the cousin? But would there even be any? As I say, nothing about this is easy.
I was also interested in how this book chose to be unapologetically intersectional. Most times a book about sexual abuse would not include genderqueer characters. There would be an objection on the publisher’s part that including this would muddle the issue in some way for some potential readers. But Billie, Dawn’s brother, identifies as trans and that’s a character note, not the central focus of this story. It’s interesting. I’ve been watching the publication of new children’s books come out for almost 20 years now, and in all that time, only now am I seeing books for kids do this. Which is to say, include intersectionality in addition to the overall storyline rather than become the focus of it. Now the reader doesn’t get to choose what to be prejudiced against. I find a great deal of comfort in that.
So how do you use this book? Who uses this book? “This book is not a how-to anything” Higginbotham writes at the end. Honestly, I’ll level with you. I don’t know where this book will find its greatest use. It appears to be written for those kids that have experienced something similar to what Dawn has gone through here. Which is to say, abuse at the hands of someone they previously trusted. Much of the book is dedicated to giving such readers comfort, support, and methods that can aid in helping while you heal from trauma. But since all art is in the eye of the person on the receiving end, I could see other uses. I could see this being used with teens or even adults. I could see it being used to explain to a child what someone they know might be going through. And there are probably ways it could help and heal that I don’t even know about.
I’m writing this review not long after having given a talk on how to review in a socially conscious way. In my talk I discussed what one does when you are reviewing a title that doesn’t come from a place of lived experience, and how that affects the lens that you review through just as much as it would if you did have experience with the topic firsthand. You also have to remember that at its heart, this review isn’t about you. This is the tightrope that the reviewer walks. You bring experience while also acknowledging your blind spots or, at the very least, areas in which you are less knowledgeable. So all of this was swimming around in my mind as I thought of how to review You Ruined It. As I said at the start, this is different from a lot of other books for children out there. Children’s literature began in this nation with the twin purposes of instruction and moral guidance. We’ve moved a long ways from that, but to a certain extent this is a book that guides in its own way. A messy, complicated, unique, necessary creation for those who will need it most.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: A discussion between Anastasia Higginbotham and bitchmedia about the book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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