A Note to Readers
We need to talk about consent with our children. But it’s awkward! Britta Stromeyer Esmail’s picture book, Raina’s (Un) Happy Birthday gives parents, teachers, and librarians an amazing starting point.
Read on to learn more!
Teaching Raina’s (Un) Happy Birthday
Tell us about your book.
Young children don’t have much control over their choices—and rightfully so. However, who, when, and how they receive and express affection should absolutely be one of them. It’s a crucial element of their independence and personal empowerment of their bodies and feelings. RAINA’S (UN) HAPPY BIRTHDAY aims to empower young girls and boys to speak their truth and to express their feelings in situations where they otherwise might not feel compelled to do so. In short, it teaches children about consent.
What do you hope your young readers will take away from your book?
I watch my own children and their playmates through the lens of consent with visitors and at family gatherings. Their daily interactions are illuminating: children’s occasional or repeated reluctance to hug and their discomfort to greet a relative with kisses are common. The reasons are often innocent, like the bad breath of an uncle, a strong perfume scent from Auntie, or grandpa’s stubby beard. Yet, the social norm in these situations is to encourage compliance with an unwanted touch in order to “be polite” or not cause embarrassment of the other person. From a very young age we often confuse our children with the issue of consent.
How might a teacher or librarian use your book in the classroom?
Recently, I was approached by a kindergarten teacher who was thankful she had my book on hand. There was an incident among two students involving unwanted physical contact. “It was the perfect time to read aloud Raina’s story and engage in a discussion about consent with the class,” the teacher said.
Early and frequent communication with our kids encourages and permits them to speak up to people they love and trust when they don’t feel comfortable in a situation. Such positive communication gives children a roadmap and plan when something comes their way that is truly unwelcome later in life. It should be part of the conversation, another tool in the parenting and teacher toolbox—a strategic move towards the greater goal of safe, healthy children and adults.
Can you share an exercise or activity that teachers can do with students after they’ve read your book?
I’ve developed a common core teacher’s guide that is available upon request which includes read aloud discussion questions centered around text to self, text to text, and text to world connections. The book is also a great addition for an in class reader’s workshop and writing reflections.
The #MeToo movement has inspired millions of people to talk about consent. Masha Gessen writes in the New Yorker, “Perhaps this is the moment that #MeToo stops being a movement aimed primarily at punishing individuals and starts doing its work on the institutions that have enabled them.”
I believe what is still missing from this modern #MeToo discourse is how we teach our children about consent and the importance of voice and agency. It takes courage for a little one to speak out and stand up to pressure. Family and school settings are as much a power dynamic as is the workplace. I would argue they are even more so because the emotional stakes are much higher. Children need to know that some things are truly sacred. Full stop. They need to know that speaking up and questioning behavior— even to those that are in power or those they love is an absolute necessity, not only for the individual but also for the community and society at large. Now more than ever.
What book(s) pair well with your book?
Just this year a number of new books have emerged to address this issue. Raina’s story is a great companion book to DON’T HUG DOUG by Carrie Finison and RISSY NO KISSIES by Katey Howes.
About the author. Britta Stromeyer Esmail is the author of Raina’s (Un) Happy Birthday. Her debut picture book is a Mom’s Choice Awards® Gold Recipient, a Reader Views Literary Awards Honoree for 2018-2019, and a StoryMonster Inc. Award recipient. Kirkus praised Raina’s story stating it is “an excellent book for sensitive young readers.” Raina’s (Un) Happy Birthday is available in your local bookstore or via Amazon.