San Francisco of the time was more or less lawless, with a government happy to take bribes in order to look the other way, and an underground culture extant in both the Barbary Coast and in Chinatown. The city was filled with men fresh from the gold mines or the railroads or the seas, and they were looking for entertainment of the most basic kind. That's what these children (let's be truly frank) provided. Most died before maturity. Many died in childbirth or because they were pregnant and were deliberately starved to death.
Let's be truly, truly frank. This was the most abhorrent kind of child sexual abuse imaginable - the girls were caged (yes, you read that right) in cribs no larger than a dog kennel.
Because it existed. And it still exists today: as many as 1.2 million (yes, you read that right, again) children are subjected to this kind of trafficking and abuse worldwide - and don't even get me started on the issue of child brides, which is a disgusting form of legal child abuse.
If I seem particularly impassioned it is because of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, in which the author despairs that YA fiction today features depravity. Really? Well. My reasonably "clean" novel features the kind of depravity imposed only by adults on children.
Should young adults not be exposed to this reality?
Let's not even address here issues of teaching tolerance and awareness. Let's go directly to the heart of it: what teens feel like.
Recently I wrote a blog post for Dear Teen Me about how I felt as a teen. I had a relatively sheltered and happy childhood - no abuse, drugs, or dislocations. Yet I suffered from depression, isolation and bullying. It took a huge toll on me, but I survived. Readers of my post celebrated my bravery for speaking about it.
But I think teens today are the brave ones. They face a world of challenges and painful realities. They face a world of changing climate, of financial instability, of political upheaval. They face profound choices and dilemmas that make what we faced in the past decades seem tame.
They face childhood slavery and exploitation.
And that doesn't begin to address their personal feelings - about being different, outsider, odd, peculiar, shunned, bullied, ignored...you name it, kids feel it. And they need to know they are not alone. They need to know they can rise above. They need to know they can get help.
For pity's sake, they need to know they can help.
YA literature today saves. It saves because it faces those issues head on. It saves because if provides an outlet, or an inspiration, or an example.
YA saves. Yes, it does.
Here's an organization that helps kids suffering from exploitation:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children