On Sexual Violence in a Young Adult Novel Called
The Kingdom of Little Wounds
(and why your teacher or librarian should have a copy on hand)
"The Kingdom of Little Wounds is a young adult book. It uses elements of fantasy and history to deliver a modern message: Bad things, terrible things, happen to good people; but it’s still possible to find a path to your own kind of power."
A few years ago, I published a novel for teens called The Kingdom of Little Wounds. A dark narrative influenced by fairy tales and the history of Renaissance courts in Scandinavia, England, and France, it pushes young Ava Bingen and Midi Sorte into the service of Queen Isabel, who is believed to be mad with grief, boredom, and the many poisonous chemicals that were rife in the day.
Bad things happen in this book. Most notably, rape.
The Kingdom did well with the critics and with teen readers. It won a silver medal in the Printz Award series from the American Library Association, was number 3 on the Boston Globe list for best of the year, snagged starred reviews in major publications, and was endorsed by one of my personal heroes, Gregory Maguire, who called it “brazen, baroque” and me “a pantocrator of new realms.” That would be a creator and judge. The book won a silver medal in the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award series in 2014 ... and in 2019, it was number 78 on the ALA's list of most often banned and challenged books of the decade.
So it wasn’t a hit everywhere. On democratic reviewing sites—places where anybody at all can go to post an opinion—some Protective Moms wrote to warn potential readers away. It was an ugly book, they said. Upsetting for teenagers. It should have been published for adults—and possibly just for adults depraved in some way.
Flash forward a couple of years, and I’m at a conference for high school English teachers, many of whom have read The Kingdom and gather in a breakaway group to talk about it and how to use it in the classroom. They’re the reason I’m writing this letter now.
"Sure, it won kudos out in the world,” they say. “But what are we supposed to tell the parents who see their kids reading it and get upset about the violence—”
“And the rapes—”
"And the homosexuality—”
“And the syphilis!”
Yes, the story is set in 1572, when syphilis was still a relatively new disease, one as terrifying as AIDS was in the late twentieth century (or COVID more recently), and the object of bizarre investigations.
One woman put all this into a simple request: “Could you write something on your website that we could point to, to show the book deserves to be read?”
So I am writing …
Here’s the story in brief: The royal city of Skyggehavn, somewhere in Renaissance Scandinavia, is sick through and through. The children are in fact ill with a mysterious affliction known as Morbus Lunediernus (the Lunedies’ sickness), but that’s just one of the ways in which people are suffering.
I don’t want to go into the cause of the Morbus here, because that’s one of the revelations of the book, but I do want to discuss the reason some adults don’t want to let their teens read the book. It’s a reason that frightens me, and every day that passes terrifies me more.
The reason is patriarchy. That means patriarchal power structures, and the way in which power (any power, really) expresses itself. It seems not much has changed between now and the Renaissance, when men brokered women’s bodies for alliances among men; wars were fought and won on young girls’ bodies. A girl of twelve might be married off to a man in his thirties and put to bed with him; that happens in the first twenty pages.
It’s arguably even worse for two non-royal girls who are raped. And these aren’t just any girls: They’re the two principal narrators, Ava Bingen and Midi Sorte.
There are ways in which these two girls couldn’t be more different. At first, they don’t like each other: Ava is a seamstress demoted to a maid scrubbing the nursery; Midi is an enslaved girl of about the same age who was given to Mad Queen Isabel and who is the children’s favorite caretaker. Ava can speak, but she can’t read; Midi can read, but she can’t speak. A former owner split her tongue in two one day because Midi dared to speak her master’s name. In a society that pits women against each other as they compete for relatively small luxuries, they are rivals.
What they have in common, the violence against them, doesn’t draw them together at first. They are raped by the same man, Lord Nicolas, one of the King’s favorite courtiers, and he forces sex on them to assert his power. It’s a display as much for himself as for them. And they are deeply, terribly traumatized by the experience, though each one eventually finds a way to start reclaiming her power, fueled by anger over the assault—though they have to move beyond blaming themselves for it first.
Sound familiar? It’s almost universal. It happens every day: Young girls are sold into sexual slavery, sometimes by their parents; an actress goes to meet with a Hollywood executive and is forced to have sex with him. Closer to home in suburbia, girls are pressured into sex at parties, in cars, in basements. Sometimes by groups of boys who take turns. And girls aren’t the only victims; rapes of young boys are increasingly reported. One man I know once got a ride to school from a “friendly” driver who tried to convince him to let the man give him an enema for a few hundred dollars.
When I gave The Kingdom of Little Wounds to my editor, it was fall of 2012, an election year. The Republican candidate, a very conservative and religious man, wanted to impose strict laws about abortions, and he made an infamous remark about keeping women in binders. It looked as if we might lose some of the freedoms and choices into which many young women had been born.
How much worse it is now, in 2018 [when I first wrote this piece], I can’t say. We have a president who was elected even after the world heard a tape in which he bragged about being so famous that he can go up to any woman who catches his eye and “grab her by the pussy.” The government is de-funding organizations that help women get medical care, including care needed after rapes.
Rape is obviously not a pleasant subject, and it’s one that teachers and parents should consider when stocking shelves for their teens. And then they should stock the books.
As one of the teachers at the conference said to me, “It’s important to find others who’ve shared your experiences, even if they’re fictional characters.”
“Maybe especially if,” another put in.
They were writing the essay for me; I listened and took notes.
“If a girl—or boy—has been raped and doesn’t feel able to talk about it, a story like this will show her that she’s not alone.”
“It’ll show her that she can get her power back.”
"It's a step toward healing."
"Or understanding someone to whom it has happened."
“Old-fashioned patriarchy doesn’t have to win.”
I sincerely hope that it doesn’t. The oldest written versions of fairy tales we have, stories of the kind that Ava tells to the children while she cleans the nursery, are dark stories of murder and thinly cloaked rape. They are templates for adolescence, for negotiating the tricky terrain after which a person will be, in fact, a young adult.
The Kingdom of Little Wounds is a young adult book. It uses elements of fantasy and history to deliver a modern message: Bad things, terrible things, happen to good people; but it’s still possible to find a path to your own kind of power.
I think that’s an important message. And I believe that older teens who want, and maybe even need, to read such a story should be able to do so. Some of those young readers have written me lovely letters. And they’ll thank the teachers, librarians, and parents who give them the freedom to find the books they not only want but also need.
Choosing what to read--that's a kind of power too.