Evelyn Yang On Writing A Kids’ Book About Sexual Abuse
Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photography by Photos Courtesy of A Kids Book About
If there’s one book you read to your children this month, A Kids Book About Sexual Abuse might just be it. Written by Evelyn Yang—a sexual abuse survivor, mother of two boys (Damian, 5, and Christopher, 8), wife of 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and special needs advocate—the book is geared towards children 5-9+ years old and aims to tackle the ugliest of topics with a steady hand.
The statistics are devastating: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. One of the goals of Yang’s book is to reach children before they experience sexual abuse, instead of retroactively (which is all too common). In 2020, Yang herself came forward with her story of being sexually abused by her OB-GYN, which was an experience that triggered her into remembering another incident of abuse from her childhood.
Below, we spoke with Yang about her powerful new book—which comes out during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month—as well as her plans for her next children’s book on the horizon, and much more. (MOTHER readers can use the code AKBASAMOTHER for 20% off this important new title.)
At what point did you know you wanted to write a children’s book about sexual abuse?
“I was reflecting on how I had shared this tremendous secret of sexual abuse by my doctor with the world, but had not yet explained to my own children what sexual abuse was, even after realizing my personal childhood experience. In that moment I felt an enormous weight of responsibility AND lack of resources. This is the book I wanted to read to my own two boys.”
Did you do research other children’s books on this topic?
“I found that there are just not enough resources on this topic. I also found that sexual abuse is more prevalent than most people would like to know. As many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18—so it actually makes the conversation critical. However, as a society, we tend to address sexual abuse almost purely reactively. We only talk about it when something bad has happened. That’s a terrible time to learn about something for the first time, as it was in my case as a young girl. My goal was to give parents and educators a tool to get in front of the issue in a way that didn’t feel scary, overwhelming, or overly clinical.”
What was your process like in writing it?
“This is not a clinical book, since I’m not a doctor or clinician. The book comes from my perspective and experience as a survivor. I think it’s significant to be able to say, ‘This happened to me. I felt confused, I felt scared and unsure, but this is what I did.’ That personal narrative makes the story more memorable, and therefore hopefully a more effective tool for kids in vulnerable situations. So, my manuscript was based on my own lived experience and perspective to distill what I wish I would have known when I was younger, and the conversation I wanted to have with my own boys.”
“I also trusted A Kids Book About to partner with because they’ve published books on all kinds of complex and tough topics that are framed as starting conversations between kids and grownups. They helped me bring in that conversational style that’s a hallmark of all their books and it helps make these topics that much more accessible to kids.”
As a sexual abuse survivor yourself, how emotional was this process?
“On a personal level, this book is a part of my healing. It’s a blessing for me to be able to channel my trauma into something productive that can help others find healing. One thing I didn’t share when I initially came forward about my doctor was that the experience triggered a memory of childhood sexual abuse that I had repressed for over 30 years. I think this book was a way for me to process that trauma as well.”
“The story I share in the book is not about what happened to me as a child, but about how I was abused as an adult. I had this in mind when I wrote the book because I felt this was a powerful example of how even grownups can find themselves in this situation, and that even grownups feel scared and confused. I use it to illustrate the point that if it happens, there need not be shame—the most important thing you can do is tell someone.”
“In my case, after I came forward, dozens of women came forward about the same doctor, who was subsequently exposed for abusing minors under his care. I don’t elaborate on those details in the book, but the takeaway is that when I told someone, they believed me. I was able to help myself and others. That’s a message of empowerment that’s unique to this experience, and I thought it was an important lesson to highlight to children the power of their voice.”
Tell us how important it is to you to encourage parents to read this book to their kids early, before they encounter sexual abuse themselves.
“This situation is far more common for families than we realize. Like most tough topics, avoiding talking about it doesn’t make it any less important and less likely to happen. I hope this book will enable kids to name and recognize the signs and situation before it happens, and get help. We know that childhood sexual abuse tends to carry on over a prolonged period because the abuser relies on the child’s silence, confusion, shame, and fear. I hope this book can help break that cycle in the worst cases. But the key point of the book is that no matter what happens, the single most important thing you can do is to tell someone. It’s always brave to tell the truth, and your voice is powerful. This is an important lesson for every child—regardless of whether or not they are currently in an abusive situation or not. Kids can use my experience to understand the importance of speaking up even when it’s uncomfortable, in order to help themselves and others. It’s a principle that can help them throughout their lives, into adolescence and adulthood.”
What conversation about sexual abuse do you remember having (or not having) as a child?
“I don’t remember any conversations about the topic as a child. After being abused by a stranger at school, I remember having discussions with the prosecutor about it in preparation for my testimony. That was my first education in sexual abuse and it was a lot to handle given the circumstances. I think the goal should be to get in front of the issue as much as possible, and present the content in a more positive way. We can frame the conversation around being aware of your body, trusting your instincts, and never being afraid to ‘tell’ if something happens.”
Have you been able to have these conversations with your boys, and how have they gone?
“Yes, I have these conversations with them all the time because they have been the test/research subjects for my book! It’s not that easy to hold their attention to begin with, but I think the narrative format of my book works really well, especially with younger children. After reading my book, they registered feelings of empathy, injustice, and justice—I’m actually pretty proud of that.”
What are your hopes for this book and how children and adults receive it?
“I like to consider this book about safety—we teach our children how to cross the street safely, how to say no to drugs, what to do in the event of a fire. This is not that different. Given the prevalence, we need to normalize teaching our kids about the signs of sexual abuse and the importance of reporting it. We know too well how even adults often have a difficult time talking about personal experiences with sexual assault. We can imagine how much harder it is for children. It’s why we need to create these safe spaces for them, and give them that explicit permission to ‘tell.’ In that regard, I also consider this a book about empowerment.”
What books are you currently enjoying with your boys?
“My 5-year-old Damian has been reading the Elephant and Piggie books for years with me, but he’s rediscovering them now as he’s learning to read. These books are perfect for young readers and he’s getting to enjoy them now in a more independent way. The social emotional lessons are also timeless. My 8-year-old Christopher is discovering Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid. He just finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and is now on The Witches. He’s not the easiest to please when it comes to fiction but he appreciates the dry humor in these stories.”
What about any children’s books you loved as a kid growing up?
“I loved all the Roald Dahl books. I also loved fantasy and fairy tales. I don’t remember the titles anymore but I remember at one point in elementary school I had read the entire bookshelf of these books in my school library.”
Any more children’s books in your future?
“I’ve been discussing with a friend the need for books featuring people of AAPI heritage. I help manage the book fair in my son’s school and it always shocks me how little content exists around this. Representation obviously matters, and I think about how meaningful it would have been for me to have access to stories of people who looked like me as a child. The fact that now my own kids still don’t see themselves represented enough in children’s book content definitely bothers me.”
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