CULTURE

Domestic violence and children

How do you write a book for children that deals with the fraught subject of domestic violence without traumatizing your target readers? You select a master story teller who also happens to be a criminologist. When Marie Zaphet was president of the Soroptimist Union of Greece in 2002-04, she undertook a project to publish just such a book. «We have learnt that children who are subjected to violence may resort to using violence themselves when they grow up,» she told Kathimerini English Edition, «and we wanted to strike at the root of the problem, in childhood, by addressing children.» Delicate mission It was a delicate mission that would require sensitive treatment. Encouraged by Soroptimist human rights coordinator Niki Markoyianni, Zaphet asked Eugene Trivizas, an immensely popular children’s author and visiting professor of criminology at the University of Reading, England, to write the text, and painter and stage director Panagiotis Rappas to illustrate it. The result, published in 2005 but not available on the general market, is «To Lipimeno Arkoudaki,» translated into English by Hilary Kyriazis as «Little Bear in Trouble.» It was a conscious decision not to put the book on sale because, the Greek Soroptimist Union recommends, «children should not read this book alone. It should be read with parents and teachers, adults who are able to respond to children’s questions and misgivings, and only if and when they consider it the right moment to raise the issue.» The 5,000 copies of the Greek edition were distributed to the 30 local Soroptimist branches and to Greek primary schools. Another 500 copies of the English translation were distributed to teachers and other individuals, and organizations working with children abroad. So how did Trivizas approach this fraught topic? «As a criminologist, I could write hundreds of pages about this issue, but as a writer it was much more difficult to write a book on the subject for young children,» he told Kathimerini English Edition. «I soon decided that I had to avoid using an abused child as the hero of the book because that would make the book scary for young readers.» He wrote a story in verse about Floofloo, a little bear who never joins in the other children’s games, never contributes in class, tries to explain away his all-too-frequent bruises, is reluctant to go home and unwilling to admit what is happening when questioned. In fact, the hero presents all the classic signs of domestic violence which, though thoroughly documented, are often not noticed, even by professionals who work with children, or not reported when they are. The story is not just about Floofloo. As Zaphet said: «Part of the message of the book is about indifference to others and solidarity.» The book is interactive. At each crucial stage, the young readers are invited to choose whether to intervene or not by turning to different pages depending on whether they ask the bear what is troubling him or choose to ignore his plight. At last, the other bears take action. After questioning Floofloo, they witness an ugly scene of violence at his house – depicted as shadows through a window pane, so as to convey the message without being too frightening – and ask their teacher for advice. This approach offers children two alternatives, as Zaphet notes in her introduction – to remain indifferent or to show sympathy, caring and love. «Condoned and passed over in silence, violence survives and grows apace,» she writes. «Only love and caring can kill this monster hiding in the human soul.» The ending is optimistic, without glossing over the problem. Symbolic and real «The bear was a kind of solution, explained Trivizas, «but I wasn’t completely satisfied. Something was missing. And what was missing was a way of linking the realistic and the fantastic, the symbolic with the real. Eventually I decided that there should be a surprise for the reader at the end of the book. The bears take off their clothes and it becomes apparent that they are real people.» Rappas’s illustrations convey to perfection how carefree school days are overshadowed by a home life where parents inexplicably take out their rage and frustration on their innocent offspring. Like the little bears, children may be forgiven for not understanding what is happening, but what about the adults? It is all too common, noted Trivizas, citing research by Professor John Tsiantis. «The phenomenon is much more serious and common than official records reveal,» he said. «The more conservative the society, the more hierarchical and patriarchal the family, the harder it is for cases of domestic violence to be uncovered. Even neighbors and other third parties who suspect something are reluctant to intervene in what they see as other people’s family affairs.» Perpetuated The effects are grave and long-lasting. Abused children – who may incur serious physical injury and profound psychological damage – frequently become abusers themselves, perpetuating the problem unless they receive help to deal with their experience and overcome it. Like all the other contributors to the project, Hilary Kyriazis, who did the excellent translation, offered her labor free of charge. How did she approach the task of rendering the Greek verse in English? «The verse went easily because I felt it very deeply,» she said, «It’s a book about a very sensitive and vulnerable aspect of children. I felt moved by it.» Kyriazis chose to translate the freer verse of the original into a more structured rhyme and an iambic meter that echoes English speech. «That type of verse speaks directly to children. When memorizing poems they love supplying the end rhymes,» she said. Publication of «Little Bear in Trouble» was sponsored by the Interior Ministry’s General Secretariat of Equality and Alpha Bank, with assistance from Aktina Travel SA, the City of Athens and the publisher Michael Kyrkos and staff. One wonders if another sponsor might step forward to give this book even wider distribution. If the response of some teachers who read it is anything to go by, there is a need. Apparently it helped alert them to the fact that some of their own pupils had been subjected to violence in the home. For information: www.soroptimisteurope.org.