A Child Called It

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A Child Called It Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dave Pelzer 's A Child Called It. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dave Pelzer

Dave Pelzer was born in California, and grew up in Daly City. His parents were Stephen, a fireman, and Catherine, both of whom were alcoholics. In his books, Pelzer describes being horrifically abused by his mother until the age of twelve, at which point Pelzer’s teachers intervened and arranged for him to be placed in foster care. Pelzer later served in the military. In 1995, he published a memoir of his abuse, A Child Called “It” (1997), which quickly became a bestseller. Pelzer later published two further memoirs, The Lost Boy and A Man Named Dave (2000). Pelzer remains a popular lecturer and motivational speaker.
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Historical Context of A Child Called It

Few historical events are mentioned in A Child Called “It”; however, one important historical trend to keep in mind is the strengthening of child abuse laws, beginning in the mid-1970s. In 1974, one year after Dave Pelzer was removed from his home, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which allocated considerable funds for government agencies such as Child Protective Services and played a major role in increasing the public’s awareness of child abuse. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Dave Pelzer was growing up in California, surprisingly few people seemed to understand what did and didn’t qualify as child abuse. Arguably one of the major changes in American society since the mid-1970s has been a heightened awareness of child abuse.

Other Books Related to A Child Called It

A Child Called It has been compared with a number of vivid, harrowing memoirs published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including A Million Little Pieces (2003) by James Frey and Don’t Ever Tell (2006) by Kathy O’Beirne. In all three of these books, a “survivor” tells a story—presented as nonfiction—of abuse, cruelty, and trauma. However, some critics have faulted these books for indulging in the “pornography of trauma”—in other words, representing horrific pain and suffering without any real insight behind it, so that, in effect, readers have no choice but to accept the narrator’s trauma without understanding it. (It’s also worth noting that all three books have been criticized for distorting the truth in the interest of selling more copies. For more information, see Themes.)
Key Facts about A Child Called It
  • Full Title: A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive
  • When Written: 1991-1994
  • Where Written: California
  • When Published: Fall 1995
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Daly City, California, late 1960s and early 1970s
  • Climax: Dave’s teachers call CPS and “free” Dave from Mother
  • Antagonist: Mother / Catherine Roerva Pelzer
  • Point of View: First person, present-tense (in the prologue and epilogue) and past-tense (in the rest of the memoir)

Extra Credit for A Child Called It

An American hero. Dave Pelzer served in the U.S. Air Force, and later fought in the Gulf War in the early 1990s. In 1996, he carried a torch for the Sumer Olympics, in recognition of his military service and his struggle to boost awareness of child abuse.

Controversy. A Child Called “It” has been praised for helping victims of child abuse come to terms with their trauma, and for giving abuse victims the courage to speak out against their abusers. However, the book has also received a significant amount of criticism, and there are some who’ve argued that Pelzer exaggerated or even made up the extent of his abuse. Articles in The New York Times and The Guardian have raised the possibility that Pelzer is exaggerating his childhood suffering to sell more books (after A Child Called “It”, Pelzer published two more bestselling memoirs revolving around the same traumatic experiences). Pelzer’s brother, Stephen, has disputed many of the claims in the book, including that their mother stabbed Dave in the chest, burned him, or forced him to consume ammonia. Pelzer has also been criticized for repeatedly claiming that A Child Called “It” was taught in Harvard classes and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (neither claim is accurate).