Interview with Cheryl Rainfield, Author of Scars

About a month ago, Cheryl Rainfield agreed to do an interview for Kid Lit Frenzy,  In light of the Wall Street Journal Article, we decided that the interview needed to be posted today.  Thanks Cheryl for such a quick but thoughtful responses to my questions. 

What advice/suggestions would you give a teen who has a friend that is engaging in self-harm behavior? I know as a teen I wasn't certain what to do when I discovered that a friend was cutting. I stood by her but wish I could have done more.

I think the most important thing is to respond with compassion, and to let your friend know that they don't deserve to be hurt, even by themselves. It might not sound like a lot, but a compassionate, caring response can really go in there, and it helps encourage healing, instead of increasing the shame or blame. It can also help to ask them why they're doing it--and really listen to their response. I have some tips on helpful responses to self harm here:

If you were to create a list of 5 to 10 books a High School teacher should have in their classroom library, what would they be and why?

I want to list so many more, because there are so many books that make such a positive difference! But here are a few:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, because it helps sexual abuse survivors know they're not alone, and it helps other readers understand, and maybe respond with a bit more compassion.

Crank by Ellen Hopkins, because it helps teens see on a deep level how doing drugs hurts and destroys you.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, because, through metaphor, it helps the reader understand how horrible violence and oppression is.

Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, because it comes from the perspective of an abusive boy, and it may help some readers who have those tendencies or who bully to come away with greater awareness of what their actions do.

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, because it inspires strength and protectiveness of others, and shows readers that there is hope in finding safety, love, and a home if they don't have that.

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr, because it can help teens grapple with overwhelming physical pain and the emotional effects, and show them that healing is possible.

When She Hollers by Cynthia Voigt, because it gives great hope and strength to anyone who's been sexually abused (that's at least 1 in 3 girls), and helps all readers see that we can fight back and protect ourselves, no matter what's happened to us.

Totally Joe by James Howe because it's a funny and endearing story about a gay boy, and teens need to see we can be ourselves and things can get better.

Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde because readers need to know that love is what matters, not whether you're attracted to someone who is male or female.

and, if it doesn't sound too bold of me, my own book Scars, because it has an insider view of self-harm which helps people who use self-harm know they're not alone, and other people who couldn't understand why someone would use it, to understand. And because it also reaches lesbian and gay youth, and incest survivors.

Teens don't often like to speak with adults about issues going on in their lives (trust issues, fear, etc.) - what advice would you give an adult in how to (1) recognize when there is a concern and (2) how to speak with a teen about that concern?

It depends on what the concern is. For self-harm, some warning signs may be wearing long sleeves and long pants even in the summer/heat; not wanting to wear revealing clothing; strong depression or despair; isolating themselves from others. For sexual abuse/incest, some signs may be: fear or uncomfortableness around men or sex, or the extreme opposite, throwing themselves towards it; strong negative body image issues; low self-esteem; strong guilt or self-blame; self-destructive behavior; being on high alert (such as jumping at sudden noises or touch); trying to hide their body; etc. There are many more possible signs....

I think for any hugely painful issue that a teen is dealing with, there will often be depression; retreating from others or the opposite, acting out; lack of self-confidence, and more.

One way to talk to a teen about an issue is to give them a good YA book on the subject (and read it yourself) and then talk to them about it. Ask what they thought and felt in response. I think a lot of dialgue can open up more easily over a book--over characters who are going through the issue, rather than the teen you are talking to. It can bring a kind of safety.

I know as an educator I have struggled in speaking with parents about big stuff kids are facing. I sometimes wonder will the parent believe me or will the child just get into trouble because I shared it (ignoring it isn't an option)? - Any thoughts about how to help parents who might be in denial?

Hm. First, I have to say--if anyone had spoken to my parents about the abuse I was going through, it would definitely have increased the abuse and torture I was experiencing at home, but I still would have been grateful. It would have been something I could hold on to, another voice telling me that what was happening to me wasn't okay, when everyone else around me was denying it and pretending not to see it, even though I tried to tell in so many ways.

I think it can help to open with how much you like the teen, and some things you appreciate, and then mention your concerns and how worried you are about the teen. Really listing all the signs and letting them stack up. It might help the parent be able to listen a bit more. Maybe giving the parent a book or an article might help as well? I'm not sure what else to suggest. Denial can be very strong in people.

SCARS is a complex book - addressing both issues of sexual abuse/incest and homosexuality. Did you ever wonder if you should just address one of those issues rather than both at the same time?

No--it made sense to me to cover all those issues (incest, being lesbian/gay, and self-harm) because many teens are dealing with all of those issues. I did, and I know others who have. And the incest is the root of the self-harm for Kendra, and for many people, so the two go together. Also, being queer was not an "issue" in the book--I wrote it from the perspective that it was just part of who Kendra was, and she was happy with it. I think it's so important to have LGBTQ books where their sexuality is not the issue, so that it's more normalized. It's another way to fight homophobia.

I know many people are talking about this lately - especially in light of the WSJ article - but why do you think books about important issues are so critical to teens?

I think books that deal with painful or hidden issues are so important for teens because many teens can't find someone safe to talk about what they're going through, but they can find out that they're not alone and that there is hope in a book. When you're in pain and you think you're the only one who thinks or reacts that way, it can make your pain worse, even unbearable. Teens go through so much that is hard, already--intense emotions, dealing with peer pressure and bullying.... When you load on any extra problems, and most teens have something, it gets hard to cope. Books can be incredible support.

My Reasons Not To Hurt Yourself can also help someone dealing with self-harm, so giving the person a link to the post or a print out might help them when things are hard.

To read my review of Scars, click here.

To follow Cheryl on twitter: @cherylrainfield

Book Review - Scars

Author: Cheryl Rainfield
Publisher:  Westside Books (Original Pub. Date: March 24, 2010; Paperback Release: May 31, 2011)
Audience: Young Adult
Source: Copy for Review
Contemporary Fiction * Young Adult

Description from GoodReads:
Kendra, fifteen, hasn't felt safe since she began to recall devastating memories of childhood sexual abuse, especially because she still can't remember the most important detail-- her abuser's identity. Frightened, Kendra believes someone is always watching and following her, leaving menacing messages only she understands. If she lets her guard down even for a minute, it could cost Kendra her life. To relieve the pressure, Kendra cuts; aside from her brilliantly expressive artwork, it's her only way of coping. Since her own mother is too self-absorbed to hear her cries for help, Kendra finds support in others instead: from her therapist and her art teacher, from Sandy, the close family friend who encourages her artwork, and from Meghan, the classmate who's becoming a friend and maybe more. But the truth about Kendra's abuse is just waiting to explode, with startling unforeseen consequences. Scars is the unforgettable story of one girl's frightening path to the truth.

The topics of sexual abuse and self-injurious behavior are never easy topics to write about or read about.  How do you say that a book dealing with a topic such as this is a good book or a great book?  It always feels strange to me to say that for fear someone might mistaken it for being entertaining.  I then find myself creating my own way of describing books and movies that do a great job in dealing with a really tough topic.  I prefer to respond-  "this is good in a disturbing way" - meaning the author or director did a good job with the a troubling topic and I should be bothered enough about what was written to move me into some serious discussion, thought or action which will hopefully be life altering.

Cheryl Rainfield's Scars falls into that category.  Her main character, 15 year old Kendra was sexually abused as a child and is now working with a therapist to identify the person who raped her and to find healing.  One of the ways that Kendra deals with the pain and anger of her past is to cut herself.  Kendra's emotions are real, stark, and yet, you can see her fighting to find herself, to find hope, and to find a way to trust people.  

Scars deals head on with issues of sexual abuse and self-harm (cutting) in a straight-forward, no nonsense manner.  It doesn't glamorize the topic or make the whole thing seem like there are easy solutions.  Yes, the book is less than 250 pages which limits how much of the process can be drawn out or explained, but the reader still understands that though there is some "resolution" for the main character at the end that the healing process will still be a long journey.   I appreciated that Rainfield didn't try to make the whole thing neat or palatable.  

Sometimes, I think it is easier to read fantasy stories because the monsters in those books are real monsters that main characters can identify as the villain and usually have some super power or ability to use to fight the monster. However, in real life, monsters don't look like monsters.  They are men and women and sometimes even children who act in ways that are horrific.  They are often times the people we even know, live with, work with, or encounter in our every day lives.  We have no super powers to fight them.  But we do have a voice and we can make choices to speak out against these atrocities.  Rainfield has used her voice, her writing voice, to show the courage of one teen who must remember and then confront the person who abused her.  

Is this book for everyone?  Maybe or maybe not.  However, I know that I would have appreciated a book on this topic when I was a teen and knew of individuals who were hurting and used self-harm to deal with the pain.  I know that Cheryl has heard from teens who have told her how much the book has helped them.  And for this reason, I would lean more towards maybe over maybe not.  

I also appreciated that Scars doesn't eliminate all adults from being potential sources of help and encouragement. Kendra has adults that are safe in different ways and at different levels that she turns to (a therapist, an art teacher, a family friend) for support and help.  My hope is that for teens dealing with serious issues in their own personal life that there will be a few of those safe adults to turn to.  Also, for both adults and teens reading Scars, Rainfield has included a list of resources at the back of the book which provide more information on how to provide help for someone facing issues of abuse and self-harm.

For those who want to know more about Cheryl Rainfield, you can check out her blog.  I have linked to a post she did in response to a misinformed Wall Street Journal article this weekend.  To read her post and check out the links, click here

You can follow Cheryl Rainfield on twitter: @cherylrainfield

Look for my interview with Cheryl Rainfield later in the week.