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Picture Book Therapy Thursday: Carrie Finison on "Don't Hug Doug" and Teaching Kids Consent

Welcome back to Picture Book Therapy Thursday! This week we have the lovely Carrie Finison on the blog.

Carrie Finison began her literary career at the age of seven with an idea, a box of markers, and her father’s typewriter. She has been writing off and on ever since, though she has (somewhat regretfully) traded in the typewriter for a laptop. She is the author of DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS (Putnam, 2020), DON’T HUG DOUG (Putnam, 2021), and HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE (Random House, 2022). When she’s not writing, Carrie enjoys reading mystery novels, trying new recipes, and curling up on the couch for family movie nights. She lives outside Boston with her husband, son, daughter, and two cats who permit her to write in their cozy attic office.

Carrie is joining us to discuss DON'T HUG DOUG, her picture book focusing on bodily autonomy and consent.

Doug doesn’t like hugs. He thinks hugs are too squeezy, too squashy, too squooshy, too smooshy. He doesn’t like hello hugs or goodbye hugs, game-winning home run hugs or dropped ice cream cone hugs, and he definitely doesn’t like birthday hugs. He’d much rather give a high five–or a low five, a side five, a double five, or a spinny five. Yup, some people love hugs; other people don’t. So how can you tell if someone likes hugs or not? There’s only one way to find out: Ask! Because everybody gets to decide for themselves whether they want a hug or not.

Carrie, I'm so happy to feature you on the blog today. What inspired you to write Don’t Hug Doug? I knew this was a common problem—we all know kids who have gone through a no-hugs phase, kids who avoid hugs due to sensory issues, and conversely, kids (and—ahem!—adults) who are overenthusiastic huggers. So I thought it would be fun and an interesting challenge to write a story about a kid who doesn’t like hugs. There are lots of hug-positive books out there, but not so many about NOT hugging. What was the process like for Don't Hug Doug from inspiration to publication? After the initial idea, I wrote a story that was a very traditional narrative, told in the third person, about a boy named Doug whose aunt, uncle, and cousin came to visit and kept trying to hug him, and all the various ways that he avoided those hugs. I revised this version a bunch of times, but something didn’t sit right with me about the ending. In picture books, there’s a convention that the main character should solve their own problems. But in this case, the problem was that the adults weren’t listening to Doug or being sensitive to his preferences, and there wasn’t anything he could do to MAKE them listen. I put the story away for over a year, and when I brought it out again, I had an inspiration. Doug couldn’t make the adults in the story listen — but I could! So I rewrote it in the imperative voice, which literally requires the adult reader to say the phrase “Can I hug you?” over and over again. (Insert evil cackle by the all-powerful writer.) After that breakthrough, the manuscript sold quickly to an editor I was already working with on my debut book, Dozens of Doughnuts. The publisher selected Daniel Wiseman as the illustrator, and from that point it was fairly hands-off for me. Many people don’t realize that picture book authors and illustrators traditionally don’t speak at all during the illustration process. All communication goes through the editor and art director. There were a few points when I saw sketches and gave a little feedback, but for the most part I didn’t hear much for months, until the book was close to publication. I always enjoy hearing about the ways ideas change before they reach their final form! Re-writing in the imperative voice is such an excellent (evil genius) choice for this text. Do you have a scene or sentence in Don’t Hug Doug that was your favorite to write? I really loved writing the beginning, with the rhyme and the parenthetical asides, mainly because my sense of humor runs along the lines of snarky side commentary, and I like making myself laugh.

The first time I read this to my daughter, I laughed out loud at this image for so many reasons. The slug is my personal favorite. Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves? The topic of consent is one that can feel awkward to discuss, and I hope this book helps adult and child readers to talk about it in a way that feels comfortable and relaxed. For some, it may be the first time they ever considered the question of whether or not they actually like hugs, when, and from whom. And on the flip side, for the huggers in the room, it may be the first time they’ve practiced asking the question, “Can I hug you?" How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids? I hope they will use Don’t Hug Doug to do some role playing. While reading, kids can take on the role of Doug and practice giving the kinds of answers he gives when asked for a hug. Then they can turn the tables and practice asking if it is OK to hug. Getting comfortable with this language is important! I’ve also heard anecdotally from parents that they appreciate having this book to hand to grandparents and other relatives when visiting with their kids. It can be hard for kids to give distant relatives a hug, especially when they haven’t seen them in a long time, and it can be hard for a would-be hugger to feel like their affection is being rejected. I hope that the book provides a spark for open conversations about that.

What a great way to practice role playing this issue on both the parts of the adults and the kids. My own daughter often doesn't feel "touchy" so we are working on how to state that to others.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids? Always keep the child’s point of view in mind, and try for some humor. Sometimes these topics are only difficult because the adults make them so. When you approach things in a matter-of-fact, or even humorous way, it’s really not that hard. Try to drop your adult conditioning and inhibitions and think about the topic as a child would. Tell us about your upcoming books! I have two books coming out in the summer of 2022 that I can’t wait to share with the world.

LULU & ZOEY: A SISTER STORY, illustrated by Brittany Jackson (Running Press Kids, June 7, 2022) is about two sisters who don’t always get along, but ultimately find a creative project that brings them together and helps them open their hearts to each other. Kirkus Reviews said “the sisters’ relationship is refreshingly realistic” — which comes from personal experience as I have two sisters, myself.

HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE, TIME FOR SCHOOL!, illustrated by Erin Kraan (Random House Studio, July 19, 2022) follows a little tortoise as she tries to get to school on time, which of course goes against her very nature. She gets frustrated when all the other students pass her on the way to school, but then makes a lovely connection with her new teacher that both validates and empowers her. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that her teacher is VERY familiar with being slow.

Carrie, thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me about Don't Hug Doug and your upcoming books! I can't wait to add these new books to my shelf.

For more about Carrie, visit her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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