My recently-released picture book, DON’T HUG DOUG, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, is about a young boy who does not like hugs. Doug doesn’t like hello hugs, or goodbye hugs, or even birthday hugs. It’s a concept book about consent that explains to the reader that some people like hugs, some people (like Doug) don’t — and that’s OK —and that the way to find out whether someone wants a hug is to ask.
“But what’s wrong with Doug?”
“Why doesn’t Doug like hugs?”
“Is Doug autistic?”
These are some of the questions I get from adult readers about the book’s main character. And when I answer, my response probably sounds enigmatic.
“He just…doesn’t like hugs.”
In drafting the story, it was important to me to let Doug be himself, without explanation or apology. Without labels. I don’t want readers mentally diagnosing Doug every time they read the book, the same way we shouldn’t be mentally diagnosing the people around us based on their preferences and behaviors.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for labels, especially when they help people to get the specialized treatment or services they need within the education and healthcare systems. And I’m grateful when people share their labels and give us all a broader understanding of what it means to live with a particular diagnosis or condition.
But the truth is, MOST of the time, for MOST of the people we interact with, we’re not going to be privileged with the knowledge of their labels or diagnostic history. Nor should we be. Instead, we must learn to simply accept differences and preferences, accommodate for them, and move on. Kid at the party doesn’t like cake? Offer ice cream or a popsicle. Kid doesn’t like loud noises? Offer noise-canceling headphones, a quieter room to sit in, or just ask others to keep things quieter. Kid doesn’t like hugs? Offer a handshake, a wave, or a high five — and don’t take it personally.
I believe those four words, “don’t take it personally” are at the heart of what makes acceptance of certain preferences and behaviors, such as dislike of hugging, difficult, and why I believe people sometimes seek out a label by way of explanation. If a person doesn’t like hugs, and is autistic, for example, then that feels like an “acceptable” explanation. But if a person doesn’t like hugs for…no particular reason, it’s somehow much more difficult for the would-be hugger to accept. Now, it feels personal, even when it’s not.
But alongside the questions about Doug’s possible labels, I’ve gotten many, many responses like these from other adults:
“I am SO a Doug.”
“I want to hand this to some people in my life right now!”
“I wish I had this book growing up. I always hated hugs and thought there was something wrong with me.”
It makes me happy when I hear that a child with sensory issues, for example, relates to Doug, and that reading the book helps adults in their lives understand their preferences a little better. But even more, I want Doug’s character to feel universal and to remind readers of what we have in common. Because the truth is, whether we have a label or not, we’ve ALL had Doug-like moments, haven’t we? Even if we like hugs, most of us can think of a time when we didn’t want a hug in a particular moment, or from a particular person — when we felt physically or emotionally uncomfortable but perhaps couldn’t say so at the time.
The good news is that the kid readers I’ve interacted with are very accepting of Doug and his preferences, and are eager to express their own hugging preferences, too. Here are some kid comments from a recent classroom Zoom visit:
“I’m like Doug, I don’t like hugs.”
“I like them from certain people, but not everyone.”
“I usually high-five my grandpa. We have a special one.”
“I always ask my brother before I hug him.”
If we adults can get out of their way, I think the kids are going to be alright.
Whether someone is “a Doug” or not, I hope books like this can help us all let go of the need for explanations and labels, and make room for others’ preferences with the acceptance, empathy, and respect they deserve.
Carrie Finison writes picture books with humor and heart, including Dozens of Doughnuts (2020), Don’t Hug Doug (2021), and the forthcoming Hurry, Little Tortoise! Time for School, and Lulu & Zoey: A Sister Story (both 2022).
She lives outside of Boston with her husband, son, and daughter, and two cats who allow her to work in their cozy attic office. For updates and giveaways, subscribe to her newsletter, check out her website or follow on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.