February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Finding the Words to Talk About Abuse: Tony Abbott on “The Summer of Owen Todd”

Tony Abbott’s The Summer of Owen Todd has received critical praise, earned starred reviews, and made SLJ‘s Best Books of 2017. But if you haven’t heard all that much fanfare about it, it’s not surprising; it tackles a topic many adults would rather avoid or ignore. In it, two best friends, Owen and Sean, are looking forward to a long summer on Cape Cod. Sean, who has Type 1 diabetes, must spendSummer of Owen Todd book cover most of his time with a babysitter while his mom works. When Sean reveals to Owen that the babysitter is abusing him—and makes Owen promise not to tell anyone, even threatening to harm himself—Owen must decide if (and how) he should speak up. We recently spoke with Abbott about the book and his process for developing this heartbreaking, but needed story.

There’s no way around it—this is a tough book. It tackles a very sensitive subject, child sexual abuse, in such a realistic, yet developmentally appropriate way. Even still, I can see some parents, teachers, or librarians being a bit nervous about keeping it on display or recommending it. Why did you decide to address this topic in a middle grade work? And what would you say to those concerned adults who might be wary of placing the book into the hands of young readers?

The horrific truth is that abuse involving an older man and a young boy often happens when the boy is not yet in school or preschool, so before five years old. I knew from the beginning that motifs like good touching/bad touching would be all too vague for the story I would write. (An acquaintance of my wife told her about what happened to her son, wondering if there was a way to tell it [in a work of fiction]; he was very young. True stories only sometimes have the makings of fiction, and here the brutal truth along with the child’s age didn’t seem possible [to write]; it might be, but not for me.) I originally put both characters, Owen and Sean, at eight years old, in the summer between third and fourth grade, but even this turned out to be wishful thinking on my part, as the writing dictated an older reader. It was far too raw for the early grades. So the characters became 11, and the summer became the one between fifth grade and middle school. 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. It’s an unspoken issue that needs, like everything that has been coming out lately, to be discussed and dealt with. In terms of displaying or recommending the book, I think most children are ready to empathize with Owen’s basic battle, which is, should I tell what is happening to Sean despite his swearing me to secrecy? How do I keep a horrible secret? How do I live a normal life after hearing about this horror? But not all readers will be prepared for the hard details of what Sean tells Owen. Here is where adults will want to be judicious in handing the book over. 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.

Statistics bear out that most abuse against children happens by someone they know—a relative, a close family friend, or even a babysitter, as is the case with your character Sean. And yet, very few books discuss the subject for kids. What do you hope children will walk away with after reading The Summer of Owen Todd?

I could talk for ages—and still not get it right—about the beautiful mystery of what fiction does and how it presents kids with situations they might have encountered but may not have had the language to deal with, both within themselves and openly to others. I love the middle grade mind. It is sliding into adolescence and flexing toward adulthood, while still very connected to childhood. It’s a battleground of so many tensions and problems, some of which are far beyond their experience to solve. Owen’s struggle to believe Sean and his Hamlet-like wish that it all go away—these are issues children deal with all the time. I would hope that readers feel that Owen and Sean are deeply alive, and like them, funny, smart, bereft, angry, loving, hopeful. If readers emotionally bond with them, they will take their story into themselves.

You are a prolific writer for young readers, covering a wide array of genres from fantasy to adventure to realistic fiction to humor. What’s your typical writing process like? Are you methodical and a careful outliner? Or do you work more on-the-fly? Was your process for Owen similar or different from previous books?

In most cases, I am a strict outliner on paper, though I hope in a fairly organic way. In mysteries, of course, I find I need a direction and often the end-point in order to know the flow of the action. In literary novels—it helps me to make the distinction—the outline is more often in my head. Conversations, moments, hinges of action, all these will come to me as I am thinking about a story. I write some of them down if they scream to be notated. In the case of Owen, I began more or less this way. Soon after the basic story was told to me, I began to envision moments that electrified me. Dialogue between a boy and his best friend, and the terrible things his friend was telling him. And where they were when this conversation took place, what else was going on, was it afternoon, was it raining. It came together this way: scene after scene, settings, dialogue, detail, the smell and sound of a Cape Cod summer. All of these gradually conjured the world of the book.

Have you gotten any feedback from kids or adults about Owen?

So far, I have the comments, wishes, and encouragements of adults—the review community, teachers, school librarians, counselors, people with whom I have spoken to directly or online. I haven’t yet gotten any feedback from young readers, and I am hoping this comes, though I cannot imagine what such a reader will say. There will be negative comments, surely. It’s not a book to “enjoy,” save in the somewhat hopeful ending but may provoke some serious emotional work. I think the book takes readers to a place of deep thought and emotion. What young readers will say about it will be of inestimable worth, and not only to me, if that doesn’t sound presumptuous.

What were you like as a middle grade reader/student? What were some of the things you loved to read back then?

I was and remain a poor reader. Middle grade? You’re talking about the early 1860s here! Seriously, I was likely working my way through the “Hardy Boys” adventures. My brother and I had quite a collection of the original blue-spined hardcovers. He, a year older, was a great reader of science fiction, too, but these were rather long for me to get through. I tried some Edgar Rice Burroughs, the John Carter books. I remember reading a lot of “Classics Illustrated” comics. Again, my brother’s influence. Later, it was the Joseph Campbell Arabian Nights compendium, and in high school, Heart of Darkness. In middle school, I was just scraping by as a reader.

Are you working on anything right now that you can talk about?

Well, since you ask . . . two things. In early summer 2018, Katherine Tegen Books will publish Denis Ever After, a mystery involving a boy in the afterlife who is brought back here by his living twin to help solve the dead boy’s untimely death. I’m very proud of this story—a road-trip mystery with a ghostly element that is, at base, a family story of several generations, and how everything that happens is somehow connected. I think it’s touching and very funny, for a ghost story. The other book, appearing the following spring, is a companion to Firegirl, my 2006 novel from Little, Brown. It involves many of the same characters as the first book, but this time we hear from Jeff Hicks, his life in his words. Many readers don’t like Jeff because he was mean in the first book. Here we learn from the inside how he deals with a different crisis. This is what is on my desk at this very moment. I think readers will enjoy visiting that world again. Hearing Jeff’s voice in my head is what really propels this book.

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Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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Comments

  1. So sad! Pay attention to the kids more.

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