How can we protect children from sexual abuse, beyond the legal and reporting systems we put in place, at an individual level? It’s a question that plagues every good parent, grandparent, auntie and uncle.
And it’s one that exercised author Michelle Derrig, not only as a parent of four children – aged 11, nine, six and 22 months – but as a Catholic concerned for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, having heard disturbing details of local children who had been abused by their fellow students.
Her rhyming picture book, Only for Me, for 3-8 year olds – beautifully illustrated by former Disney artist Nicole Mackenzie – helps children understand the sacredness of their own bodily privacy, and was released earlier this year to accolades from parents, teachers and child protection advocates.
She spoke to The Catholic Weekly about the deeper content of the book – the thinking and motivation that went into it, and the reaction it has received to date.
How would you describe what this book is about?
Only For Me is a 32 page, soft cover, rhyming book which empowers children with the knowledge that their body is private and they have a right to protect their privacy. (It covers) subjects never before included like what happens after they tell someone they can trust, the inappropriate use of technology by predators, and includes a double page spread illustrating that they have the right to say no to anyone, no matter their age, relationship or status in the community.
What inspired you to write the book?
It was at a dinner party in early 2014, that I heard about two separate cases in my immediate community, where young children in primary school had been sexually abused by children their own age. I was horrified to hear that in both cases, the parents had been supervising their children at the time.
It made me realise, that no matter how diligent you are as a parent, the reality is that we need to empower our children to protect themselves. We need to teach them, educate them and develop the skills they need, in order to keep themselves safe. I wondered how to do this in a way that is gentle and dignified. How do we engage them in such a conversation? How do we talk to them about such confronting subjects, while maintaining their innocence?
It was these questions, that prompted me to produce Only For Me. [It] gently introduces critical information they need to know, in order to protect themselves.
How long did the process take and did you consult child protection experts in the process?
The entire process took two-and-a-half years, however, during this time I also fell pregnant and gave birth to my fourth child, so family took first priority and I would just work on the book whenever I could.
I consulted with child protection experts at one of Australia’s leading child protection agencies Act For Kids, as well as with Christian author and sex educator Dr Patricia Weerakoon. I also had input from countless parents, including adult survivors of child abuse and read many drafts to my own children, as well as the children of friends and family members.
Child protection is a very serious subject. How did you find the balance between the critical information and the light tone of the book?
For me it was important to gently lead them into the subject. The first five spreads deal with other parts of the body first so there is a gentle introduction into the more serious information. The use of rhyme and deliberate choice of child-friendly words also help to deliver the message at a level that is appropriate and engaging for young children. For instance they don’t need to be told what pornography is, they just need to know that it’s not ok for someone to see pictures or movies showing these parts of the body.
How important are the illustrations in complementing the story?
As with any picture book, the illustrations are critical to supporting the text and maintaining the interest of the child. I was so very blessed to be able to work with former Disney artist Nicole Mackenzie (who I met through our parish community and became good friends with, well before I ever entertained the idea of writing a book). It was a very challenging subject to illustrate and Nicole came up with some fantastic ideas.
How has the book been received?
I have simply been blown away by the response. Since its release on 1 July 2016, around 1,000 copies have been sold, with orders from every state in Australia, New Zealand, America and the UK. I have also received requests for publishing in the UK, as well as several requests to create a culturally sensitive aboriginal version as well as a sequel for those children who are known victims of sexual abuse.
Whilst I want the book to be accessible to all children, as a Catholic I also have a special place in my heart to empower and protect as many Catholic children as possible. From this perspective I am very proud of getting a response from Pope Francis.
(Other accolades came from the Apostolic Nuncio of Australia, Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, the CEO, Truth, Justice & Healing Commission, Francis Sullivan, Safe Church Program Officer for the National Council of Churches in Australia, Corinne Lindsell, and many others.)
Can you tell me about the schools-based initiative?
During National Child Protection week in September I launched an initiative which involves schools, preschools and day cares sending home information to parents regarding Only For Me. I have also committed to donating 100 per cent of my author royalties to Bravehearts and Act For Kids so that they can continue the amazing work that they do.
The concept behind the initiative is to reach as many parents as possible. While Only For Me is a great resource for classroom use, I believe that it is essential for parents and carers to reinforce these messages at home. Only For Me provides parents with a beautiful resource to help initiate these challenging conversations with their children – providing an opportunity for clarification and sometimes even disclosure.
So far I have had 12 Family Educators register their school to participate in the initiative, with St John Bosco at Engadine being the most successful, with over 100 copies sold in a two week period. (Interested staff can register their school on the link at www.onlyforme.com.au).
What are your goals in terms of distribution of the book?
Despite receiving initial interest from a publisher I decided to self-publish to ensure that the book would be sold at a price that would make it affordable for the majority of Australian families. My goal is to see it in as many homes and schools as possible and dream that one day it would be given to each kindergarten child as they begin their school journey. I welcome support from any organisation who can see the value of empowering and educating our children in this way and whom may be able to help facilitate this goal.