I think Shannon Riggs, whom I've had the pleasure of knowing for about a decade, is just meant to touch people's lives in positive ways. When I first met Shannon, she was a Navy spouse who seemed unfazed by her husband's 6-month absenses, war-time service, and frequent moves. Then she campaigned with him when he ran for political office in 2008. Oh, and in her spare time she earned a master's degree and began (and still is) teaching college-level courses in creative writing. And did I mention she has two very active children?
When Shannon's first book--about Regina Lillian Hadwig and the horrible secret she hid--was published, I donated a copy to my local elementary school. The librarian had already read the critical acclaim for Not in Room 204, so I couldn't resist bragging that one of the book's characters shares my first name. Artist Jaime Zollars did an incredible job with the illustrations.
When I recently caught up with Shannon Riggs, she explained why her work has only begun.
1. Your children's book, Not in Room 204 (Albert Whitman, 2007), tackles the very sensitive matter of childhood sexual abuse. Tell me about your search for a publisher and how you convinced an editor to go to bat for such an edgy concept, written by a first-timer.
SR: My dear friend, Jennifer Galvin, read the manuscript and told me to send it to Albert Whitman. Jen has written a children’s book review column for many years and is also the author and illustrator of several activity books. When she read Not in Room 204, she thought it would be right for Albert Whitman. As it turned out, she was right.
Because the book deals with the issue of childhood sexual abuse, I included in my submission a cover letter that explained how often child sexual abuse happens to explain why a book on this topic is so important. Child sexual abuse happens to one in four girls and one in six boys before they reach age 18, so there is a huge need for books on this topic. It’s been very gratifying to hear how the story is being used in classrooms all over the country. The other day a school counselor emailed me to say that she read the book to a class, and several of the kids said, “We love Mrs. Salvador!” I love Mrs. Salvador, too. I wish there were more adults like her.
2. You and your husband, Rich, both have such a powerful service ethic. Serving in the military, running for office, teaching at the college level, and bringing light to what is a very dark reality for so many children. What stone has Shannon Riggs left unturned?
SR: Many! There’s so much to do. For now, I feel that my focus has to continue to be on the issue of childhood sexual abuse, though. I’ll be doing several speeches in April for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and I’m working on a new book about the same topic, this time for adult readers. There’s a huge taboo about this topic, and the silence that the taboo causes puts children at risk and keeps them from getting the treatment they need when they need it. I’m a stick-with-it-until-it’s-done kind of person, and the work we need to do on this issue is far from finished. If your readers want to learn more about childhood sexual abuse, a great place to start is Darkness to Light. This nonprofit agency seeks to raise awareness about the issue. I really like their message about adults needing to take responsibility. Every adult who cares about a child should know Darkness to Light’s seven steps to prevention.
3. Congratulations on the acclaim you earned from America's librarians and book reviewers, and for winning the Oregon Book Award for Not in Room 204. What has been the most surprising or rewarding aspect in this publishing process?
SR: The most surprising thing has been how often I’ve been asked to speak on this topic—and how easy it’s been to do those talks. Ten years ago, I seriously would rather have died than tell anyone I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Now, while it isn’t pleasant to remember what happened to me, it feels very empowering to let go of that shame and to share my story to help others who are going through similar experiences.
My Web site has a picture of a bicycle horn on every page. It’s there to encourage other survivors to take it and make some noise of their own. The more of us who break the silence, the more effective we can be at preventing and responding to childhood sexual abuse.