The Israeli Author Using Children’s Books to Address Sexual Abuse

Children’s book author Yael Feder addresses the prevention of sexual abuse through stories that examine physical autonomy in different ways. Her latest book, ‘I’ve Got a Secret,’ helps youngsters tell the difference between a ‘good’ secret and a ‘bad’ secret

Noa Limone
Noa Limone
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Illustrations by Asya Aizenstein from "I've Got a Secret," by Yael Feder.
Illustrations by Asya Aizenstein from "I've Got a Secret," by Yael Feder.Credit: Asya Aizenstein
Noa Limone
Noa Limone

We want to believe that our children tell us everything: their positive experiences, their disappointments, the things that upset them and their innermost thoughts.

But we also know that the most common answer to the question “How was it?” is a laconic “Fun” – which conceals more than it reveals – and that like all of us, children are also entitled not to share. In fact, the very ability to keep some things to ourselves is part of what shapes our identity, what shapes our selves.

A new children’s book, “I’ve Got a Secret” by Yael Feder with illustrations by Asya Aizenstein (Schocken Publishing House), aims to help both parents and children distinguish between two types of secrets: those that are part of a child’s right to privacy; and those that endanger them. The former is something children can keep to themselves; the latter is something they must divulge to the guardian responsible for them.

This is Feder’s third book. For 20 years, she has been focused on protecting children from sexual assault, producing plays, lectures, books and a film (“Yael’s Friends”) devoted to the subject.

“It’s in my blood,” she explains in a telephone interview. “I’m always trying to see how I can simplify these subjects for children. ‘My Private Parts Belong to Me’ (Feder’s previous book, which was a best-seller) addresses many subjects besides the matter of keeping something secret, and this time I chose to focus on what I think is really the central issue.

“If, God forbid, something happens to my child – I want to know about it,” she says. “The worst damage occurs when it remains hidden. And I’ve seen in my plays and my lectures that this distinction between a good secret and a bad secret makes things clearer for parents and children alike.”

In her latest book, the subject is discussed by means of a simple and nonthreatening plot: A little boy feels hurt when two of his preschool classmates are whispering to one another and won’t share their secret with him. When the matter comes up in a conversation with the teacher, she explains that we all have secrets we keep and don’t share, and that is our right.

Yael Feder, the author of "I've Got a Secret."Credit: Naama Ben Simhon

She asks the children if there are also secrets we must not keep to ourselves. The discussion continues when the children return home and speak with their mother about secrets in general – the fact that we all have them, that it is often hard to keep secrets, and that there are some secrets “that can cause pain if we keep them and don’t share them.”

In order to demonstrate what counts in this particular category, the children’s mother tells them about something that happened to her when she was a child: When she was their age, a boy in her class harassed her and hit her without the teacher seeing. He warned her that if she told anyone, he would tell everyone not to be her friend.

This secret, which the mother describes as a “bad secret,” gave her a stomachache when she kept it, she tells them, and it “climbed up and up all the way to my throat, until I felt like it was choking me.”

A bad secret is a secret that gives us a bad feeling in our body and heart when we keep it, and sometimes it’s a secret we’ve been threatened that we better not spill. Nevertheless, we must tell it to the adult who is responsible for us. And if the first person we tell doesn’t help us, we must tell another responsible adult, the mother says.

“There are parents who say, ‘My kid should tell me everything,’ but the fact is that kids have secrets,” Feder says. “It’s healthy, it’s a positive thing – and even if parents say, ‘Tell me everything,’ the child still won’t say everything. Therefore, it’s important to be able to know when the secret is something that needs to be told, and that’s what the book is all about.”

Illustrations by Asya Aizenstein from "I've Got a Secret," by Yael Feder.Credit: Asya Aizenstein

‘Why didn’t I tell my parents?’

Feder emphasizes how harmful threats can be to a child. Something like this happened to her as a child, she says. “I lived in an apartment building and the kids would always meet in the bomb shelter. One day, I was there alone with two older boys and they threatened that if I didn’t show them [my body], they wouldn’t let me out. So I did it. I don’t think it caused me trauma, but I ask myself: Why didn’t I tell my parents about it?

“I remember an incident from a few years ago,” she continues. “In a preschool, some children were playing together in a way that was very upsetting for some of them. And when they were asked why they didn’t inform their teachers or their parents, it turned out that it was because the girl who was leading the game had threatened to kill them. To them, this was a serious threat.”

Another important aspect of the book is how it directs children and parents to pay attention to physical cues: to the physical sensations and feelings that keeping a secret arouses. This is a smart and obvious way to distinguish between secrets that are okay to keep and ones that need to be told.

What about secrets that aren’t about abuse, but can still cause distress? For instance, something you’re embarrassed you did, or anything else that weighs heavily on you.

“I thought about secrets of that kind, but I chose not to include them in the book because that makes the distinction too complicated for small children. I hope that by focusing on what a bad secret makes me feel, this will also convey the message about secrets of the type you describe, and children will again learn to share them with an adult they trust.”

The book jacket for "I've Got a Secret" by Yael Feder.Credit: Schocken Publishing House

Feder’s first play – which like her book was also called “My Private Parts Belong to Me” – is about distinguishing between permitted contact and forbidden contact, about the importance of saying “no” and the right way to do so (“I roar it like a lion”), and about the subject of secrets.

The play is specially tailored for different age groups. For a preschool audience, the scene takes place between two boys who are friends, with one of them promising the other that he’ll show him his if the friend does the same, and also promises to give him a gift. Feder’s experience has taught her that children react with confusion to a situation like this. “Because if he’s your friend and he’s asking you to do something and is promising to buy you presents, it seems okay to them.”

For older children, the play includes a scene in which a boy is babysitting his younger girl cousin and asks her to touch him, and that if she does, he will give her something she wants.

Feder says this is even tougher for children. “First, because the request is to touch and not just to show. Second, the girl is asked to be the one doing the touching and not the one who is touched. And, finally, the fact that the boy is a relative makes it very confusing for children. Most sexual abuse of children occurs with people they know well.”

The writer says that although the goal of her plays, lectures and books is to prevent sexual abuse, there have been times where children’s reactions to certain scenes in the plays has led to the discovery of past incidents of abuse. “Of course, we reported these things to the proper authorities and made sure that the matter was dealt with. There were some horrifying cases,” she says.

Have you received any responses from parents to the new book?

“Yes, absolutely. One mother told me that after reading it with her son, he told her about bullying he was experiencing in school. Other parents have told me about their children returning to the book again and again, apparently to help them clarify their own understanding of certain things. It’s good to hear that the book is opening a dialogue between parents and children. That was precisely my goal.

“I’m a great believer in educating children on the topic of guarding their physical privacy and the importance of sharing bad secrets. Twenty years ago, when I started dealing with this subject, people looked at me like I was nuts. Today, it’s much more widely spoken about and there’s greater awareness. The language of ‘My Private Parts Belong to Me’ has entered schools and homes. Most of all, I’m pleased that people are now speaking about this with children openly and respectfully, in clear and simple language, without scaring them off.”

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