Trying to get serious without getting preachy. A picture book on consent by Juliet Clare Bell



ASK FIRST, MONKEY! (Juliet Clare Bell and Abigail Tompkins, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020)

In June 2016, I wrote a blogpost for Picture Book Den about empathy in picture books. I felt compelled to write it in the wake of the Stanford
Sexual Assault trial that had just been widely reported on, and what it had brought up for me in relation to my own experience many
years before that. Garry Parsons from the 'Den has also written about empathy
in an important recent post here, too
 and in it we can see his latest, glamorous new book 

                                   Llama Glamarama

Llama Glamorama (Simon James Green and Garry Parsons, Scholastic, 2020)


Back in the 2016 post I looked at about thirty picture books which were great for encouraging empathy in young children, but what I
didn’t find was a single fictional picture book (looking like a typical picture
book) that specifically looked at consent. There were lots of recommendations from
other people in the comments about excellent picture books encouraging empathy
but the only ones about consent were very educational and formal-looking. The
final comment was from my agent: ‘Let’s discuss’. And we did (I was already plotting and scribbling).

Cut to four years later, and ASK FIRST, MONKEY! illustrated
by Abigail Tompkins and published by Jessica Kingsley is here. It’s a book I was
extremely keen to write (because I couldn’t find what I was looking for) but
also extremely nervous. I’d love to hear from other writers and illustrators
who are trying to create, or have created, picture books on tricky issues with
the issues you faced, but in case it’s of help to anyone, here are the some of
the issues I tried to grapple with…



Clare Helen Welsh posted here just last week about using animals as characters in picture books. It reminded me that this is my only
published book to date that uses animals –and it’s for a very specific reason.
Clare’s last point about using animals is that reason: safe spaces. Using
animals as characters creates a little bit of distance for the child reader so
that we can tackle tricky subjects in a gentler way.

                  (c) Juliet Clare Bell and Abigail Tompkins (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2020)

and whilst some like Monkey's tickles...

others don't:

(c) Juliet Clare Bell and Abigail Tompkins (Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2020)

There are wonderful examples of using animals as characters, including one of my

Debi Gliori’s beautiful No Matter What about love and death.


                                                                    (c) Debi Gliori

This doesn’t mean that we should always shy away from
tackling big issues with human characters. In fact, I very deliberately used
human characters in a book about death and dying (Benny's Hat, illustrated by Dave Gray)

                                           (c) Juliet Clare Bell and Dave Gray


but for the subject of consent, I knew I wanted to use
animals and I was really inspired by Ed Vere and his books, like Grumpy Frog:


                                                                         (c) Ed Vere

and others in that style, like Morag Hood's I Am Bat:



(c) Morag Hood

and Steve Antony's Please Mr Panda:

(c) Steve Antony


Who is your book
aimed at?
If you’re genuinely trying to get a message across to a specific
audience, it’s really important to honour that audience and create something
that will appeal to them (and not just the people who will be reading the book
to them). If there’s a really important point you want to get across, and you
can do it with humour and compassion, a child may be more likely to take on
board that message. If you're writing with a specific audience in mind, it doesn't mean that the book is not for other readers, too, but it really helps you focus on the best style for the story.

In ASK FIRST, MONKEY! I was aiming the story at children who
have not yet grasped, or not quite grasped, the concept of boundaries and consent
(Monkey in this story). I wanted for these young people to find Monkey funny and relatable –and not to be judging him. Consent needs to be taught and Monkey hadn't been taught. He's still going to have fun after he starts practising consent -and so will the reader. And the fun will not be at anyone else's expense. I really hope that by using humour,
young children will learn alongside Monkey and recognise themselves when he
gets it wrong and not feel shamed by their own actions but see a new way of


I love picture books that manage to do things apparently
simply. So often, they’re by author-illustrators

like David McKee's classic, Not Now, Bernard


(c) David McKee


and of course Ed Vere, Morag Hood, Steve Antony, above, and Mo Willems, etc.

I was really keen from the start for the book to be speech
only. This makes it easy to act out (at school or at home), you get even more
of a sense of character, perhaps, and it’s simple, with fewer words. Dan Santat pulls it off brilliantly with his The Cookie Fiasco:

                                                                       (c) Dan Santat

(you can watch it being acted out with all the voices, here)

But there’s a certain amount of pride involved in letting go
of what you think would be funny and clever, versus what you think is right for
the story. My original name for the book was

Tickletastic Funky McMonkey Does Not Want An Ice Cream!

I loved Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus



(c) Mo Willems

It was a really fun and funny title and I wanted my book to be fun and funny, and what
better way than a funny, long title?

Well, clearly there was
a better way. The ice cream element of the story was dropped very quickly after
my agent, James Catchpole, thought it wasn’t relevant enough (I was
disappointed for a few days but he had a good point). Funky was dropped when
the publisher pointed out that Funky means smelly in American! McMonkey, well
that was too similar to a fast food chain, it turned out… and so on. I even
called one draft Tickles, Pies and Spinny Surprise (though the story changed
again after that)... It took a long time to get to it simply being called Ask
First, Monkey!
It was simple and to the point but I fought against it (mostly with myself)–because of
pride. Wasn’t that too obvious? Too in your face? Too preachy? Not funny?
Fortunately other people who know the business better than I do were there to
do their job. This book came from a very strong desire to help young children
who don’t yet get boundaries and consent, get it, and to grow into adults who get
it. And that can mean taking a strong dose of getting over yourself to get it
into the hands of those you really
want it to get into the hands of.  

Launching a book during summer 2020 is a strange (and often
deflating) thing as many writers and illustrators know. I was looking forward
to going into schools and doing lots of sessions with animal puppets (and
singing?!) to look at consent and boundaries in a fun, and safe, way. There
will be a song eventually but it’s been put back by a few months because it’s
hard to travel and work with the singer-songwriter at the moment, which was
disappointing, but it’s still going to happen. And I still hope to do some events with Abigail Tompkins, the illustrator who captured the expressions that were so critical to a speech only book so well. Consent is a subject very close
to my heart and we’ll get there with all the accompanying visits/songs/events

But it’s not all bad –my daughter and her friend have been
able to make a stop motion animation of the story, using toys we found on
holiday in Orkney. Here’s the fruit of their labours:




 If you're having trouble accessing the video, please clink on this link:

ASK FIRST, MONKEY! stop motion animation

The book was written before the Me Too movement, but picked
up by a publisher after. With the massive and very welcome emphasis on consent
in the past few years, this means that there are now a few other picture books
on consent either just coming out or soon to be out, which I’m very much
looking forward to reading. 

Which picture books do you think work really well
for dealing directly with a tricky topic? Please let us know in the comments
section. Many thanks, Clare.

Juliet Clare Bell is a children’s author of more than thirty
books already out or in press. In a former life (before children) she was a
research developmental psychologist.



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