In the wake of the #metoo movement, The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez asks us to delve into the aftermath of trauma and the challenges of identity.
For the past eight years, sixteen-year-old Emilia DeJesus has done her best to move on from the traumatic attack she suffered in the woods behind her elementary school. She’s forced down the memories–the feeling of the twigs cracking beneath her, choking on her own blood, unable to scream. Most of all, she’s tried to forget about Jeremy Lance, the boy responsible, the boy who caused her such pain. Emilia believes that the crows who watched over her that day, who helped her survive, are still on her side, encouraging her to live fully. And with the love and support of her mother, brother, and her caring boyfriend, Emilia is doing just that.
But when a startling discovery about her attacker’s identity comes to light, and the memories of that day break through the mental box in which she’d shut them away, Emilia is forced to confront her new reality and make sense of shifting truths about her past, her family, and herself.
The Fall of Innocence debuts on bookstore shelves this summer on June 12, 2018. Here’s what author Jenny Torres Sanchez had to say about what makes her passionate about her young adult novel, and why it is important society learn to come to terms with the way it devalues women’s bodies:
Give us your elevator pitch for ‘The Fall of Innocence’!
Emilia survived a brutal attack. She thought the worst was behind her. She was wrong.
This is from the back flap of the book, but ever since I read it I’ve been in awe at how concisely it captures this story.
Where did the inspiration for Emilia’s story come from?
I scared my mother to death one day when I didn’t come home from school. I was in third grade and I’d decided to stay after on the playground. While I was fine, my mother thought something terrible had happened to me. It was the eighties, a time rife with stories of child abductions and faces on milk cartons, and my mother was in tears when she finally found me. I didn’t understand then the depth of her fear. Over the years, though, as this story became one that was told over and over in my family, as I became an adult and a mother and a writer, I imagined what could have happened that day. What did, in fact, happen much too often to girls just like me, on ordinary afternoons in ordinary places every day in this world. It finally found its way into this book.
Your book deals with some pretty heavy issues regarding trauma and identity. What do you feel are the most important themes you’d like to express in ‘The Fall of Innocence’?
Gender inequality. Love. Struggle. Hope.
Girls suffer sexual assault at approximately four times the rate as boys. This isn’t something we should ignore, or not talk about, or pretend doesn’t occur. It’s a reality that needs to be discussed; why it happens, how we as a society contribute to the entitlement people feel to girls’ and women’s bodies. We should also have conversations that address how many times women are the ones left to carry the struggles and pain of a whole family. And how society doesn’t value or accept enough those individuals who don’t conform to gender norms. So yes, definitely gender inequality and the rippling effects of it in all aspects of our lives. I also want love, both for ourselves and others, to come across in this book in all its, raw, aching, complicated forms. And I want readers to sense the struggle that all the characters have in this story because we all struggle and carry heavy burdens in our lives. And finally, hope. Because even the smallest amount can help us go on.
As a Latina, how does your culture influence your writing? How does Emilia’s multi-cultural identity influence her perspective within the story?
I think about my younger self and what it would have meant to read a book where the main character was Latina. I was able to identify with characters in their struggles, their dreams, etc. But a book that hit really close to home in cultural identity? I didn’t find that until college when I took an “ethnic lit” class. I’m glad I have the opportunity now as a writer to offer that for young readers, to have characters that young Latinas can say to themselves, wait, I know that, I understand this part of this character. It means something to know your culture is not something meant to be hidden away. It means the world sees you. You are part of this world, not just the “other” that society can often delegate you to. Emilia’s multi-cultural identity is not the main conflict or something she struggles with. That kind of story is necessary, but it’s not the only story of Latina characters (or Latina writers). For Emilia, her culture is part of who she is, her life, her parents. And it’s woven into the story in ways similar to how I feel my culture is woven into my life and the lives of my children.
That being said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that society values the lives of women of color less than that of white women. The world as a whole is less concerned about women of color, not as outraged for them. That’s a truth not many like to hear; it makes people uncomfortable. But I’ve seen it over and over in our society and I’ve experienced it as a Latina. And I thought it was important to address in Emilia’s story.
Before you were a YA writer, you were a high school English
teacher. As both an educator and a writer, what do you hope young
readers get out of your book?
As both an educator and a writer, I’ve always been honest with teens and readers. Sometimes those truths aren’t pretty, but they are necessary in order to bring about change. So I hope this book gives young readers a sense of the kind of world we as a society create for girls and they are moved to change that. I think opening and keeping our eyes open to that kind of truth and the consequences of it can be a first step.
And despite the sadness of Emilia’s story, I also want readers to see how we have to reach out and hold on to even the smallest, thinnest straws of hope, because sometimes that’s all we have. But even in the face of the most unimaginable and greatest tragedy, people do find it, and are able to go on.
What are some of your favorite YA reads and/or authors you’d like
to tell us about?
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson was one of my favorite books this year. I finished it and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s beautiful and honest, quiet and powerful all at once. I also loved This Tiny Perfect World by Lauren Gibaldi, a wonderfully heartwarming story about opening our eyes to larger worlds and possibilities beyond the small worlds we create for ourselves. And while I haven’t gotten to The Disturbed Girls Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos yet, it’s on my radar and I’m very eager to read this one.
Finally: what makes you passionate about Emilia’s story?
Women and girls like Emilia make me passionate about this story, those who carry their stories and trauma with them, who can’t find a way to translate it into words because this world too often punishes them for it when they do. I hope that in some way I’ve given voice to them in this book.
Exclusive Excerpt from ‘The Fall of Innocence’
Later that night, the salt and pepper shakers flashed in Emilia’s mind as she tried to fall asleep. The colorful stripes reminded her exactly of a pair of galoshes she got when she was younger.
It was after the attack, when she’d recovered physically but still wasn’t talking. And one morning, instead of Ma getting frustrated as she tried to guide Emilia through yet another homeschool lesson, Ma stared at her from across the table and said, Let’s go somewhere. Wherever you want. Maybe we just need to get the hell out of the house.
Emilia didn’t want to go anywhere. And she didn’t want to do the stupid lesson, either. She did, and didn’t, want to crawl into the bed she’d been in for what seemed like forever, that smelled like her own sweat, and watch cartoons she didn’t even care about anymore. But Ma got up, and Emilia followed right behind her like she’d become accustomed to doing.
Do you want to get sandwiches? Have a picnic in the park? Ma asked.
Emilia quickly shook her head and Ma understood. No park. No playground. No place like it. So they ended up at Kmart, where they went up and down aisles, Ma picking out notebooks, stickers, markers, anything, and holding them up for Emilia, who just wasn’t interested.
Please, Ma said. You can have anything you want.
Emilia wouldn’t respond, and Ma grew tired of asking, so they went through the rest of the store.
And then Emilia suddenly found herself in front of a shelf lined with boots; she ran her fingers over the smooth rubber and bright stripes. Emilia, her mother called, even though Emilia was standing right next to her. Ma always did that now, called out her name—Emilia, Emilia—if her eyes were turned away even just for a second.
Emilia reached out and touched her mother, reassuring them both as Ma spoke to her. Ma was always talking to her, ever since the appointment with Dr. Lisa, where Emilia had overheard the doctor telling Ma to keep talking to Emilia: Keep having conversations with her, even if she doesn’t respond. Don’t forget she’s there.
Emilia felt a pull to go to one of those memories in Dr. Lisa’s office, but forced herself to stay in the store with her mother.
We’ll get your brother some underwear, Ma said as Emilia eyed the boots. He really needs new ones. But don’t tell him I told you that. You’ll embarrass poor Tomás. You know how he is. So shy. Emilia? Emilia?
Emilia squeezed her mother’s hand.
Her mother looked down at her. Those are pretty, Ma said.
They were beautiful.
Ma looked at them. You want to try them on? she asked quietly.
Emilia sat on the ground, took off her sneakers, and slipped her feet into the cool rubber boots. They looked perfect. She stood up, stomped in place a few times. They felt magical. And so, Emilia closed her eyes and pretended they had some sort of special power. She felt a fire start in her heels, sparking yellow flames. She imagined the boots transforming her, turning her plain corduroys into glittering electric-blue tights and Emilia herself into some kind of superhero. Or a rock star, like the one she and Tomás had seen on television, the man with red hair and a red-and-blue lightning bolt painted over one of his eyes.
Emilia felt herself levitating, then a burst of power as she soared and punched through the ceiling of the store.
Emilia, Emilia. Her mother brought her back down to earth.
She looked at her mother. Emilia loved the boots. She wanted them. She couldn’t stand the idea of leaving them behind. They would feel abandoned and forgotten. She couldn’t do that. Her mother had said she could have anything she wanted. She wanted these boots.
Can I have them? she asked. Her mother stared at her. Emilia was surprised by the sound of her own voice, how the words tumbled out of her mouth. She had thought her voice was gone, all used up and carried away in the cold wind of the afternoon of her attack. But there it was, and not thin and breakable, but loud. The sound of it jarred her.
Emilia, Ma whispered under the fluorescent lights of the store and a background of camping gear.
Even now Emilia could still picture her mother’s face perfectly, the look of shock when she had uttered those words after so many months of not speaking. Emilia’s mother had pulled her into her arms, squeezed her so hard that Emilia squeaked like a chew toy, and her mother had laughed and said, Yes, yes, of course you can have them. Come on!
Emilia tumbled back, deeper into the memory.
Her mother’s hand shook as she took Emilia’s hand and led her past fishing poles and tents, past the registers, and out the automatic doors of the store. Emilia thought of her old sneakers left behind on the floor and tried to run back to get them, but her mother held her hand tighter and pulled her to the car.
You can have anything you want, Emilia. Anything, Ma said as they walked.
Her mother opened the door to their beat-up car and Emilia got in the back seat. She stared at her new boots as her mother slipped into the front seat. She could do anything in these boots. She could land on the moon and different planets. She smiled at them, her boots.
Do you want ice cream? Ma asked. She turned back and Emilia saw she was happy, deliriously happy, but her face was wet with tears and it scared Emilia to see her that way. Emilia nodded. But her mother abruptly faced forward again.
Do you want ice cream, Emilia? she called out.
Emilia nodded again. But her mother refused to look back.
Say yes or no, Emilia. Do you want ice cream?
The car filled with a long silence before her mother repeated the question again. Emilia, answer my question. Just answer my question. Please.
Emilia felt as though they sat there forever, her mother’s head down as if she was looking at something in her lap. Emilia wondered if she had fallen asleep. Or was praying. Or had died.
She searched for her voice to muster her mother, to bring her back the way the crows had brought back Emilia.
Caw, Emilia cried. It came out loud and piercing, and Emilia saw her mother jump, startle. Caw, Emilia cried out again. But her mother would not turn back.
A coldness ran along Emilia’s arms and she felt herself pulled out of the store memory and in her bed once more. She hugged the blanket around herself tighter, wondering where the gust of cold was coming from. Had she left the window open?
She heard her name and wondered if it was her mother calling her, or the wind outside, or her birds, who sometimes spoke to her and sent her messages on the wind. She used to hear them so much when she was younger. When they were always with her. When they told her to fly, to join them in the sky. Over time, they spoke to her less and less. But maybe they were calling her again now. Saying, Join us, Emilia. Leave the world below. Come with us. Feel the wind. Fly to the sun. Forget everything down there.
She was tired and wanted to fall into a dreamless sleep, but each way she turned, a new image was waiting.
Jeremy Lance rode into her mind on his turquoise bicycle. He turned and looked at her. Emilia wanted to run, but fear glued her to the sidewalk. He waved, started riding toward her with that ridiculously exuberant grin, and she felt the terror in her chest rising to her throat. She looked away. And when she looked back, Jane was suddenly on the bike instead of Jeremy Lance.
Emilia, now, that’s a sweet name, her purple lips said. She smiled.
And Emilia suddenly realized what bothered her about Jane. Her smile, wide and somehow painful. It was like Jeremy Lance’s.
You’re just dreaming, Emilia told herself. Think of something else. He can’t get you anymore. Emilia pushed Jane and Jeremy and their smiles out of her mind, but other thoughts floated in—terrible thoughts that Emilia kept away during the day but that often came to her at night when she was in that half-asleep state and couldn’t tell the difference between what was a dream and what was real and what was just imagined.
In that half-asleep state, she would wonder if another kid would turn up, half dead, and then maybe another. Sometimes she saw their bodies in the woods next to hers. She would wonder if that feeling that everyone was watching her was real. And she thought of her father dying as she fell deeper into sleep. She imagined him stuck in the snow in Alaska, not a single soul hearing his cries for help.
She saw him in the snow now, his beard coated with ice. He could have been out there all night; he could have been out there for days, weeks.
Was he under some trees, looking at sky?
Were vultures circling him?
Or my crows, was that where they were headed?
Did a wolf find him?
And slash into his belly?
She could almost see his bright blood on the snow.
She needed to get to him, to save him. Emilia felt herself grow large wings and she flew upward and upward into a white sky. It was smoke and fog. It was cold. She soared higher and watched the world become smaller. She looked over snow-covered fields for signs of her father and pictured the look on his face as she landed in front of him.
Emilia? he’d say. Would he recognize her? Would he know it was her under those dark feathers? Yes, he’d know immediately.
I’ve come to save you, she’d tell him.
Emilia surveyed the ground beneath her, looking for him. But the snow and trees disappeared and were replaced by only darkness. Emilia flew and flew, looking for somewhere to land, but found nothing.
Something is wrong . . . , Emilia thought as she drifted completely to sleep. But she didn’t know quite what it was.