Sarah’s Waterfall: A Healing Story about Sexual Abuse
by Ellery Akers, illustrated by Angelique Benicio
Safer Society Press (March 2009)
ISBN-10: 1884444792, ISBN-13: 978-1884444791
Ages 9-12 and up.
My rating: 4/5
Monday, August 23
It’s a little weird being in this after-school counseling group for sexually abused kids. But my Gram thinks it will help me. Sexual abuse. It sounds like measles. I like the journal they gave me, though. I like the sound of the crinkly, fancy paper when I turn the pages, and the swans on the cover, and the gold key. I keep the key around my neck on a silver chain. I like it that no one can ever open my journal but me. It’s mine, and it’s private. I guess I’m supposed to write and draw how I feel..
—Sarah’s Waterfall, by Ellery Akers, illustrated by Angelique Benicio, p. 1.
Sarah was sexually abused by her step-father, and now she lives with her loving and protective grandmother. Sarah makes journal entries at the start of the school year after she joins a girls’ survivor group led by the school psychiatrist. Sarah begins to feel safe again with her grandmother, and makes a good friend in a fellow survivor, Paula.
Sarah’s Waterfall: A Healing Story about Sexual Abuse focuses on healing from the effects of the abuse, and not on the actual abuse; no details are given of the abuse. Specific healing and somatic exercises are described throughout the book as part of the story, allowing readers to learn and absorb the techniques without feeling that they’re learning. Sometimes Sarah or her best friend, Paula, uses a technique in situations after she’s learned it, reinforcing the technique and showing readers how they can apply it to real life situations. However, one example where Paula used the oak tree felt ineffective to me, since she used it to be silly and didn’t get positive reinforcement.
The story is written in first-person diary format, and is engaging, though there are a few entries that feel out of place or disconnected in the story (but for the most part they flow well). The story has some lightness through Sarah’s relationship with her Gram and Paula, as well as through her focus on specific sensory details that are calming or grounding. Many of the effects, such as feeling dirty, will be easy to relate to for any sexual abuse survivor, and there are concrete suggestions about how to deal with it. The colored illustrations that appear every few pages also help bring some lightness and visual appeal.
Akers uses specific everyday and sensory details that are light or not about the abuse, that help bring the reader into the story and bring some grounding and texture, such as Sarah’s new diary which has crinkly paper, or her Gram having a sponge that smells like the sea. Akers also uses strong, powerful descriptions and analogies throughout the story: “I thought how tree roots go deep in the dark earth, parts the stones, and sink down, and my feet felt heavy.”
Story text spacing is about 1.5, with space between each line, which helps the reader move faster through the book than they normally would.
I enjoyed the story; it felt light and healing. However, I would have liked the story to feel a little more cohesive, with more threads running through it, and to get to know Sarah more fully; I feel like we barely knew her. Also, the ending came too quickly for me, and felt a bit forced and not satisfying. It said that Sarah felt clean, but I wasn’t sure I believed it; i didn’t see enough movement or change in Sarah. Yet it’s a good message in the ending.
This is a hopeful book, letting readers who are survivors know that they can heal and find some safety, and letting readers who haven’t experienced such abuse know that survivors aren’t to blame. Through the writing, Akers reminds us to use the things around us that feel good, and our senses, to cope with trauma–such as noticing the sound of water from a hose on flowers. This is an important book. It focuses on healing, offers concrete real healing tools and techniques that are important for survivors–child and adult survivors both–to learn.
Benicio’s color illustrations help bring some lightness to the book, with the smiling characters, calming surroundings and beautiful colors. The illustrations move between professional illustrations and illustrations that are meant to be Sarah’s own drawings in her diary, and this is an engaging mix. I particularly enjoyed the illustration of Sarah in the waterfall getting clean, with her imagined Wonder Woman to help her.