In her newly released book, Coyote Queen, author Jessica Vitalis shares a part of her own childhood experience, narrated through the eyes of a young girl living with her mother and mother’s boyfriend in a humble trailer, facing, among other adversities, the painful reality of domestic violence. Jessica aims to provide support to those who may be going through similar circumstances, thereby illuminating the path to hope and overcoming.
The book explores common childhood situations such as bullying, lack of proper nutrition, and sadly, family violence, which manifests itself through constant physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. It’s a sad reality that no child should be involved in, but it affects more than 15 million children each year in the United States alone.
Using fiction with a twist of magic as a means to narrate difficult events, the author uses the howling coyotes that she used to hear in her childhood as a metaphor to illustrate the main character’s desire to escape. The author’s careful narration depicts how difficult it can be to leave a domestic violence environment because abusers feel entitled to power and control and resort to various strategies to control their victims, isolating them and making them feel like they have no alternatives.
In Coyote Queen, the mother’s abusive boyfriend, Larry, exercises increasingly dominant control over his partner and twelve-year-old Fud, depriving them of their independence. His misguided idea of discipline and his alcohol consumption lead to violence when someone disobeys his orders, imposing the idea that everyone must serve him. His frustration at not being able to pursue boxing becomes a dark cloud that overshadows the happiness of others.
It is important to understand that domestic violence is a cyclical pattern, with periods when things seem calm, which can lead victims to justify the abuser's violent behavior or even blame themselves. And anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; there is no “typical” profile.
Because of the complexities of the situations, victims often end up surrendering to the abuser, striving to meet their demands, and feeling increasingly trapped. They may come to believe this is their only option, resigning themselves to their fate, much like Fud's mother in Coyote Queen.
By contrast, Fud shows great strength. Despite feeling alone, helpless, and paralyzed by the fear that Larry will harm her mother, she gradually becomes aware that what is happening in her home is wrong. She follows her instincts to find a way to escape, believing at first that it’s her job to rescue her mother. When her efforts fail, Fud finally musters the courage to ask for help.
But for a child to ask for help, there must be people willing to listen and report cases of abuse. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that each state have "Mandatory Reporters" who are obligated to report when they suspect child abuse or neglect, always protecting the best interest of the child. These can be doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. Coyote Queen exemplifies the role of a reporter through a doctor who treats Fud at the hospital after a suspicious injury; he speaks with her privately, asks her what really happened, and looks for signs of possible abuse. Although Fud chooses to hide the truth, the doctor’s goal is to intervene to ensure her safety and promote her well-being.
Coyote Queen also addresses another prevalent childhood issue—bullying. The humiliation and exclusion that many children face in schools have harmful effects on their mental and emotional health. And the statistics are alarming: almost a third of teenagers worldwide have recently experienced bullying, and according to the CDC, bullying-related suicides are the third leading cause of death among young people, causing around 4,400 deaths per year.
It is of utmost importance to understand that children do not develop bullying behaviors on their own; children develop their conduct by imitating the behavior of adults. Without coming across as didactic, Coyote Queen depicts this by showing how the bullying that Fud receives from her schoolmate Ava is a reflection of how Ava is treated by her mother at home.
We must be aware of the impact of our actions, talk to children about the seriousness of bullying, and emphasize the importance of not participating in it and promoting empathy towards those facing difficulties. At the same time, we must encourage children who are victims of bullying not to retaliate but to seek help from teachers, parents, or other trusted adults to address the situation.
In Coyote Queen, Jessica Vitalis seeks to "give a voice to the countless children and adults in difficult situations" but also to raise awareness among readers who can help break the cycle of abuse. She also shares the powerful message that despite a childhood filled with difficulties, there is an opportunity for change. Every child has the legitimate right to seek help when necessary, and we, as adults, have the responsibility to protect them and provide the support they need. An author’s note at the back of the book provides resources for children in difficult situations and discusses reporting options for anyone suspecting a child in their life is being hurt.
We cannot stand idly by when we witness child abuse; a child cannot grow and develop in a healthy manner when immersed in an environment of violence, neglect, shouting, and constant disapproval, which makes them feel devalued and fearful.
Not only Mandatory Reporters have the responsibility to report abuse; ALL of us must do so if we have any suspicion, whether in our neighborhood, at school, on the street, etc. Every child has a fundamental right to survival, development, and protection. We must acknowledge the existence of abuse because if it continues to remain hidden, there will be nothing to prevent it. Coyote Queen drives home how scared and isolated abuse victims can feel, and at the same time the story fills readers with a sense of optimism that if we work together, we can make a difference.
If you are interested in purchasing Coyote Queen you can visit HarperCollins
About Jessica Vitalis
JESSICA VITALIS is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer with Greenwillow / HarperCollins. She authored The Wolf’s Curse and The Rabbit’s Gift (which received two starred reviews and was named a Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Books for Kids and Teens 2023). Her next book, Coyote Queen, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and has already received a Kirkus starred review. A novel in verse, Unsinkable Cayenne, comes out in 2024. Her work has been translated into three languages, and she was named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient and featured on CBCs Here and Now and CTVs Your Morning. Jessica lives in Ontario with her husband and two daughters but speaks at conferences, festivals, and schools all over North America.