The book was handed to me by my daughter’s friend with a request to read it aloud. We were at the Wellfleet Public Library, and as I started reading, I realized that the book is about domestic abuse.
In The Big Bad Wolf in My House, the wolf is the new boyfriend of the main character’s mother.
“He didn’t need to huff and puff or blow the house down,” I read on the first page of the book. “The big bad wolf just walked in the door.” I wished I had noticed earlier the description on the cover: “At first he was sweet and kind, but his eyes seemed awfully cold.”
The book is by Canadian writer Valérie Fontaine, illustrated by Nathalie Dion, translated into English by Shelley Tanaka, and published by Groundwood Books in 2021.
Later in an interview, I asked Fontaine why she decided to write about such a sensitive topic. “As a children’s literature specialist, I think that children’s books are supposed to talk about everything,” she said, “and I realized there was nothing on domestic violence.”
Fontaine said the book could be read by children as young as five, but with a caveat: it should be read with an adult who is able to answer the child’s questions and welcome all the emotions it provokes, she said: “The adult’s support is very important.”
I reached out to child psychiatrist Christopher Bellonci, who lives in Truro and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School as well as the senior policy adviser at the Judge Baker Center. Bellonci practices therapy with children and families who have experienced trauma, and he disagrees with Fontaine about who the book is for.
In his view, the book uses words and concepts that might not be understood by younger audiences, he said. There is a presumption that readers know the story of The Three Little Pigs, in which the wolf tries to blow houses down, said Bellonci, noting that the metaphor would be lost on any child who hasn’t been exposed to the old tale.
The best place for books like this, Bellonci said, is in the context of a therapeutic encounter. They “can help open up conversations with kids,” he said. “I can see a therapist using it with a young child who has experienced domestic violence.”
The book might also help a foster parent explain a difficult situation to a child who has been removed from his or her home, Bellonci said. Or it could help a parent who has made the decision to separate from an abusive partner explain what has happened.
“I made myself as quiet as a lamb,” says the girl in the book. “I tidied my room. I brushed my teeth.” A minimalist illustration shows the main character lining up her shoes. The monochromatic drawings seem quiet and give the impression of hidden drama.
That line is affecting, said Bellonci, because “it is common for traumatized children to think that they have the power to prevent violence in their home from happening — and that can be very damaging for kids.” Probably the most important message in this book, he said, is that children are not responsible for abusers’ behavior.
Rather than reading this book with an eye to prevention, Bellonci suggested a different strategy.
Whenever a child is leaving a parent’s watchful eye, there is an opportunity to begin to practice opening up communication, he said. On picking a child up after an event, for example, a parent or caretaker might ask, “How did it go?” Reminding children that you are open to difficult information is important, too. For example, he suggested, “If anything ever made you uncomfortable or sad or scared, those are the things I always want to know.”
If a child responds, “What do you mean? What might happen?” a parent or caretaker can answer, “Well, sometimes there are people in the world, adults that you may like or trust who made some bad choices or may do things or say things that surprise you or make you uncomfortable. Those are the things that would be important for us to talk about because I don’t know what is happening when you are not with me.”
Cape Cod in the summer is a beautiful refuge from everyday problems for many. But not for everyone. Police department records from the four Outer Cape towns show there were 178 domestic disturbance calls in 2021. Arrests followed those calls in almost a third of the cases: there were 7 domestic violence arrests in Eastham that year, 11 in Wellfleet, 8 in Truro, and 28 in Provincetown.
And that’s not the whole story, said Chris Morin, “Because a lot of victims don’t find the courage to ask for help or are effectively silenced by their oppressors.” Morin has been director of prevention, education, and outreach for the last 11 years at Independence House, a Hyannis-based nonprofit that provides free, confidential counseling and other services for people of all ages who are affected by domestic violence. From her office in Provincetown, Morin provides counseling for those trying to live free from violence.
According to Morin, national statistics show that, on average, victims try to leave their abusers seven times before making a final decision to do so. “Most have to be at the end of their ropes to ask for help,” she added.
Independence House is open to male victims as well, Morin said, though most are women.
Her work starts with empowerment, she said. “You just need to make a call — you don’t have to make decision,” Morin said she tells potential victims.
“Everybody is different, so we ask them, ‘What do you want to happen? Do you want to leave? Do you want to go back to school?’ ” said Morin. “If they want to leave, then we come up with a safe plan, depending on what their resources are.”
After the violence in The Big Bad Wolf in My House escalates from shouting and throwing dishes to the wolf harming the girl, the mother decides to leave to go to a safe house, which suggests the story has a happy ending.
But the book doesn’t say what happens after mother and child go to the shelter, noted Bellonci — and shelters are not permanent living situations. Nor does the book show how the mother and girl learn to trust someone again, Bellonci added.
In New England, “everyone treasures their right to privacy,” Morin said. But she wants everyone to be more aware of domestic violence, even here. “All that abusers need to continue abuse is silence,” she said.
Independence House’s hotline is 1-800-439-6507. Chris Morin can be reached at her Provincetown office at 508-771-6507 ext. 230.