makchic is publishing What if? our first picture book for children aged 3 to 8 years which delivers concepts of personal safety, consent and body boundaries through engaging rhymes and delightful Malaysian characters. It also contains important resources for parents and educators to guide them in their on-going discussions with children.
The book’s authors – makchic’s own Kimberly Lee and Liyana Taff, illustrator Delia Razak, as well as consultant and gazetted Assistant Child Protector, Thency Gunasekaran – talk about the inspiration behind this book and why conversations on consent and child safety need to start happening in Malaysia and within our homes.
Inspiration for a personal safety book for young children
How did What if? come about?
Liyana: As some of you might know, makchic conducts regular sharing sessions, where we ask followers to share their experiences on certain topics anonymously. Back in 2019, one of the topics was sexual harassment, and it was heart-breaking to see that so many of our followers experienced some form of sexual harassment when they were children. Some of them didn’t even realise it was sexual harassment until they read other people’s experiences!
From there we decided to dig deeper and partnered up with SPOT, an organisation that conducts workshops at schools on topics of sex and puberty. But one thing we realised is that even after they are exposed to the topics at school, the conversation doesn’t continue at home with their parents.
My colleague Najmin and I believe that at the end of the day, it is imperative that these conversations happen at home. And more importantly, to ensure the lines of communication remain open – so that the child feels comfortable talking to their parents about these crucial issues and vice versa.
We started brainstorming ways to help parents with this, and that’s when we decided on coming out with a children’s book. Our surveys revealed that parents welcomed a resource they could use to read with their children and introduce these personal safety concepts.
How did you come up with the title?
Kimberly: “What if?” is a simple question to ask, but one that’s based on scenario or role-play games that get your child to think and respond to a situation. From the workshops and training sessions that we’ve attended, we knew how helpful role-playing scenarios were to generate conversations about child sexual abuse, or situations that infringe on a child’s rights and body boundaries. So, we felt that it was a good catalyst to play out in a book to convey body safety ideas to our community that, quite frankly, might not have had any exposure whatsoever to many of these ways of protecting their bodies.
In our book, we pose the question “what if?” and explore various categories or scenarios of consent and personal safety. It starts off in a very fun and fantastical way, and then delves into situations that are a little bit more serious and real-life based. The intention is for the message of safety and boundaries to carry through, and for our child reader to pick up on these messages throughout the book.
Need for localised content on personal safety
Why do you think we need this book in Malaysia?
Kimberly: There’s just so much that is swept under the carpet, particularly in our Asian society. Malaysia is not exempt from that. As a parent, this is an issue that I feel so strongly about. I am a mother to two sons and it matters to me that I am raising my children in a way that they not only know how to protect themselves, but also learn to respect the rights of other people around them. Especially because they’re boys. I want to raise them to be boys that respect the rights of women – who understand that “no” means “no” and the power of saying that.
We have written several articles and conducted research on this topic. We know that people are suffering more than ever because of Covid-19. Talian Kasih, WAO and AWAM – their hotlines are getting an increase in the number of calls about domestic violence and child sexual abuse. The pandemic is creating this pressure-cooker sort of situation, where parents are getting frustrated because of economic pressure and being cooped up in the house. This then spills over to the children, who aren’t able to go outside and communicate their need for help.
Thency: Liyana approached me in 2019, saying that she and her team had this idea of coming up with a book for young children to talk about personal safety, and I was really, really excited. As someone who works on the prevention of child sexual abuse with both adults and children, I really recognise the need for localised content, because many people tend to say is, “Oh this doesn’t happen in our culture, it doesn’t happen in our context”. But it does, and we need resources that can let people feel that they are seen and their stories are being told.
I felt this was an opportunity to do that, an opportunity for children to learn that they have the right to be safe. But also for parents to have that space to initiate and engage in these often difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with their children.
This book, when you read it – invites children to use their imagination but at the same time, provides them the opportunity to think about what they feel okay with, what they feel comfortable with, what they feel unsafe with. It’s a very safe way for children to explore their boundaries while allowing parents to connect with their children and talk to them about these very important matters. And I think this book will be an important resource in terms of parents becoming stronger allies and support systems for their children.
I wish that there was something like this when I was a kid. I’m sure we’ve all had this family member who hugged us too tight or wanted to salam too long, and you just didn’t know how to say “no.” Our parents also didn’t know how to say, “Actually my child is uncomfortable and that’s okay if they want to say no.” This book will open that space for children and parents.
When advocacy meets art
Delia, how did you get involved with this book?
Delia: I love it when advocacy meets art, and I’m always up for opportunities where I can use my art to amplify a good cause. As I read the draft, I was immediately drawn to it and I thought it was amazing how a heavy topic was addressed with a lighthearted series of stories.
The empowerment of children is something I feel strongly about and I knew this was a project that I wouldn’t want to miss out on.
What was the favourite scene you illustrated in the book?
Delia: It would be the kids playing in the park scene. I related to it a lot because growing up, I always felt the need to accommodate another person’s feelings or needs above mine. So, I would say “yes”. Or if I say “no”, I felt guilty for deciding so. I liked how that page teaches a child that it’s ok to say no or to change your mind after saying yes. And that the person at the receiving end should also be respectful of the decision. It’s a page I wish I saw as a child lah.
Consent is a habit
Why is it so important for kids to grasp the concept of consent and boundaries?
Thency: Very often when we think about consent, a lot of people think about consent in the context of a sexual relationship and things like that. But consent also means having a choice about what happens and other people also having a choice about what happens.
The reality is: consent is a habit. It’s something that needs to be practised. And the younger we start learning about consent and the younger we learn how to make it a normalised part of our everyday lives, the easier it is when you grow up.
Teach your children these choices and connect it with boundaries. Normalise this idea of everyone having a right to a choice of what happens to their bodies, then the idea of respect also becomes less abstract. Consent, boundaries and respect are then all interconnected.
Continuing the conversation
What do you want readers to know about What if?
Liyana: What if? is really important for all of us at makchic, especially for our children. It’s a really sweet and simple story but one that deals with important topics that we as Asians often feel uncomfortable discussing. I really hope that it will help generate more conversations at home, especially between parent and child, caregiver and child.
*This discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You can watch Kimberly, Liyana, Delia, and Thency’s discussion on IG Live here. For more about makchic’s What if? book and to be alerted on when and where the book will be available, visit www.makchic.com/whatif.