A lovebird who doesn’t like kisses? Rissy’s friends and family wonder if she’s sick, confused, or rude. But kisses make Rissy uncomfortable. Can one little lovebird show everyone that there’s no one right way to show you care?
Rissy No Kissies carries the message that “your body and your heart are yours, and you choose how to share.” A note at the end provides further information for kids, parents, and educators about body autonomy, consent, and different ways to show affection.
Today author Katey Howes joins us to discuss her inspiration, creative choices, and why it’s important to introduce consent to young readers.
Where did you get the idea for Rissy No Kissies?
I have three daughters who all show affection in very different ways. For example, one has an aversion to being hugged – it makes her feel anxious and trapped, not comforted and safe. I’ll freely admit that at first this upset me. As a mom, I wanted her to accept my preferred way of sharing love. I sometimes felt rejected or sad or even that I was a bad parent when she refused hugs.
Luckily, there were people in my life who helped me realize that what mattered most was that my child felt loved, comforted, safe and in charge of her own body – and that she knew she would not be judged or rejected for the way she reacted. Rather than being sad that she didn’t want a hug; I could learn to treasure the handholding and nose-nuzzling she DID want.
Each of my children, and each of the many children I’ve become close to as a camp counselor, physical therapist, and Girl Scout leader, have their own preferences for giving and receiving affection. Kids know what feels right to them! I wanted to create a book that helped kids – and their caregivers – feel good about identifying, communicating, respecting, and celebrating the different ways we show we care.
How do you like to show affection? What about the rest of your family?
I really do love a good hug – but I also show I care with simple, everyday actions, like brushing my daughters’ hair, sneaking a treat into their lunchbox, or dropping a kiss on top of my husband’s head as he works at his desk.
One of my daughters loves to snuggle up next to me and read together. Another likes to rub noses to show she cares. My youngest started drawing tiny, cute animals on scraps of paper and sneaking them into people’s pockets when concerns about COVID-19 made it unsafe to get close for cuddles. She calls them “hugs,” and they make my heart so happy!
Why did you decide to make your main characters lovebirds?
I almost always write with human characters, so “branching out” into the world of birds was new for me! In this case, I wanted the illustrations to be as warm and inviting as possible, because I knew that the topic itself could be a little disconcerting. I wanted a level of cuteness and connection, but also a bit of distance. An animal character could provide those things.
I settled on lovebirds because of the common perception that, as a species, they must be very loving – and because videos of lovebirds “kissing” are adorable! I knew that it would be easy for kids to quickly understand that kissing was the expected form of affection in the story, and that any lovebird who didn’t show affection that way would feel like she didn’t belong.
When Rissy asks, “are you sure that I’m a lovebird?” readers will recognize that she feels her differences have taken away any chance of belonging. That’s a tough, sad feeling to relate to! I think using an animal character cushions the feeling a little more than if it were a human character asking, “are you sure I’m even human?”
Did any other books influence you as you wrote Rissy No Kissies?
While drafting Rissy No Kissies, I did my research and looked at mentor texts on the topics of consent and autonomy. Many of the books available on the topic were great teaching tools – but not necessarily engaging stories. One that stayed with me, however, was Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung. Its simplicity and sweetness strongly informed my goals for this book. I also leaned into my lifelong love of Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, a classic picture book about a child who deals with the stresses of family life and of feeling ignored. You’ll find echoes of the rhythm and refrain of Noisy Nora in the structure of Rissy No Kissies – and hopefully I’ve been able to imbue a similar re-readability and relatability in this book.
Why did you write this particular story in verse?
I very much wanted this story to have a refrain, because of the ways repetition helps children engage actively in a book as it’s being read aloud to them. A book a child engages with is a book a child remembers! Simple, predictable rhyme also gives children a sense of power during a read aloud, because they can guess what words come next. That sense of agency compliments the message in Rissy No Kissies that you get to choose your own ways to share affection.
The educational materials at the end of Rissy No Kissies talk a lot about “consent” and “autonomy.” Why are these topics important to discuss with young children?
We learn so much in our early years that informs how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others as we grow! When we teach young children that they are in control of their own bodies, and that they have to respect other people’s bodies, we empower them. They grow up knowing how to set boundaries and to say “no” to touches they don’t like. They grow up asking before touching others. These basic concepts reduce the risk of the child becoming a victim of sexual assault or of touching others in inappropriate ways. Instilling a strong sense of autonomy and an understanding of consent from a young age builds strong, confident, and respectful individuals.
The educational materials for caregivers also mention sensory processing disorder. Can you explain a little more about what that is and how it is relevant to Rissy No Kissies?
People with a sensory processing disorder have differences in how they understand and process sensory information. Some are hypersensitive to certain sounds, smells, touches or other sensory experiences, and will try to avoid them because they are distressing. Others are hyposensitive, so they seek out more intense sensory experiences. These sensory differences can greatly influence the ways kids – and adults – experience physical expressions of affection.
It’s very important that we understand that for one person, a long, strong hug provides the deep sensory input he or she needs to feel calm and safe. For another, that same hug could cause anxiety, nausea, or a “melt-down.”
At a crucial moment in the book, Rissy says to her mother, “Kissies make my tummy icky. I feel worried, weird, and wrong.”
I included this line specifically to give children with sensory processing issues a relatable moment. It’s important for them to see that they aren’t alone in not just disliking certain touches, but in being overwhelmed and even sickened by them. I wanted caregivers to read it and recognize that for some people, not liking hugs or kisses isn’t “being difficult” or “antisocial” or “rude”- it’s not even a matter of opinion. It’s how their body responds to the world.
Between my own family, my friends, my physical therapy clients and kids I’ve worked with in camps and extracurricular activities, I’ve gotten to know many people with sensory processing issues. And I’ve seen how much more enjoyable and less stressful their lives are when the people around them understand and respect their differences. I hope Rissy No Kissies helps improve understanding and acceptance of sensory processing disorders.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope both children and caregivers come away from Rissy No Kissies with a sense of autonomy – of knowing that they are in charge of the ways they give and receive affection. I hope they learn to ask others how they like to show love, and to respect and celebrate everyone’s choices, without shame or judgement. Hopefully they realize that even a little bird can make her voice heard “with a most emphatic squeak.”
Praise for Rissy No Kissies
“A cute conversation-starter.”—Booklist
★”Radiant.”—starred, Kirkus Reviews
★”[A] refrain (‘No kissies!’) and soft watercolor art by Engle reinforce the message that speaking up for one’s bodily agency should always be embraced.”—starred, Publishers Weekly
“[P]rovides a platform to empower children to discuss what makes them feel good and how they like to show their love best.” –Celebrate Picture Books
You’ve got to see these amazing activities including a consent craft game, a vocabulary game, and more!
Want to read more author and illustrator interviews? Find them here!