Wednesday, 19 August 2020

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 favourites

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 behaving.


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 eventually.

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.




Jane Clarke said...

Super important topic, can't wait to get hold of a copy for my granddaughters. I like the title, doesn't sound preachy to me :-)

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Jane. I'm so pleased. It's a proper Ronseal title -it does what it says on the tin!

Clare Helen Welsh said...

A really interesting read, thanks Clare. I think the title is brilliant and wonderfully clear. I’m looking forward to reading Monkey’s tale!

Clare Helen Welsh said...

Oh no, Bobo! By Donna David and Laura Watkins is another good one about consent , published in April

Susie New said...

I think it's very clever, communicating an important subject to little ones in a light, friendly and easily understandable way. Through monkey's mistakes children learn that not everyone always feels the same way as they do, and it's best to ask first before you tickle or hug etc. But not at all preachy.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Clare! I didn't know what Oh No, Bobo was about but I really liked the look of it. I'm going to buy a copy today. x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Susie New! x

Donna Vann said...

I've already got my copy, ordered from my local indie bookshop. Win-win! It's excellent, with a snappy text and illustrations which show the animals' expressions clearly. Loved the video too. Well done, Clare! X

Sally Yonish said...

I already have two copies of this wonderful book (one for an amazing young reception teacher) and I love it. As always, your work is definitely fun and funny but also caring, sensitive and beautifully written. Many congratulations!
Just one problem - I can't access the animation from your blog. The link is blank. ☹️ Any suggestions?

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Sally. I'm so pleased you like it -and thanks for sharing it with a teacher. Here's the link to the animation: and if that doesn't work, you can go straight to youtube and put in Ask First Monkey Juliet Clare Bell and it'll come up. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I'm so pleased you like it, Donna. Thank you for your kind words.