Writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Laurie Halse Anderson, whose 1999 novel “Speak” is considered a landmark Y.A. book on sexual assault, “have really been knocking at that door for a long time and banging the drum to talk about this stuff,” Messner said. “I think it has inched that door open, so that now more of us are able to raise these issues for younger readers.”
Woodson’s book, “I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You,” is about two 12-year-old girls who find a safe harbor in each other amid issues at home, but despite its protagonists’ age, it was categorized as Y.A. when it was published in 1994 for its treatment of sexual assault.
Attitudes are shifting, however, on sensitive topics in middle-grade literature — L.G.B.T.Q. issues, for instance, were once taboo but have become more common. Messner said that she encountered pushback when discussing her 2016 book “The Seventh Wish,” which deals with drug addiction, in schools, but audiences have been more receptive to “Chirp” and some even wanted to share it with readers younger than middle-grade.
That doesn’t mean these books need to be required reading for everyone. “I think people tend to know their kids well and should trust their gut,” Damour said. She recommends parents read the books first to ensure the content makes sense for their child.
Wendy Lamb, who edited Woodson’s book, said she sees a change in the message of these newer books. “Today’s books are saying there is more help from authorities and understanding adults,” she said. “There are more resources in your family, in your community, for you.”
This is reflected in the final scenes of “Chirp,” when the protagonist, Mia, hears from adults what children who are victimized need to know: “It’s his fault. No one else’s,” and “You were brave to speak up.”
Messner was trying to depict a reality in which kids felt safe using their voices. “Writing a story like this,” she said, “is a way for us to rewrite the script the way it should’ve gone.”