When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and libraries last spring, nothing felt the same. But one thing that didn’t change was the curiosity of kids. Even as their lives were upended by the new virus, they wanted to know more about it, and more about the workers who kept the world spinning while the rest of us stayed home.
Those who make books for kids felt the same curiosity. While many adults coped with the lockdown by taking up new hobbies or baking bread (sourdough, anyone?), some authors and illustrators found that leaning into the situation with creativity was a better fit. A year into the pandemic, those projects are beginning to hit bookshelves. They include everything from hopeful picture books and tributes to scientists and essential workers to historical perspectives on public health.
It was early March 2020 when my own writing began to focus on the emerging pandemic. After an eerily quiet drive to Boston to pick up my daughter from college, I was talking with my Random House editor about the topic for book six in our "History Smashers" series, which is aimed at unraveling myths that young kids sometimes learn about history. There were already conspiracy theories circulating about COVID-19, so a look back at infectious disease outbreaks in history seemed like an ideal way to explore the topic for kids. With my now-home-from-college biology major signed on as a research assistant, I immersed myself in the Black Death, smallpox, and the earliest science of immunology. (Even Edward Jenner had to deal with anti-vaxxers. They warned that his smallpox vaccine, which was derived from cowpox, might cause people to grow horns and hooves!)
Writing about pandemics in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t without challenges. With most libraries closed, I relied on databases, interviews with experts, and help from saintly research librarians working from home. Every time the project came back for edits, the global infection and fatality numbers had changed. By the time we were reviewing first pass pages for the book, there was good news to report as well—the approval of the first two vaccines. History Smashers: Plagues and Pandemics, illustrated by Falynn Koch, publishes October 5.
While I worked on that project, one name came up over and over again in my research and in the news: Dr. Anthony Fauci. As I learned about his work and life, I realized his story was one that would inspire young readers and scientists. How did a boy who rode his Schwinn bicycle around Brooklyn delivering prescriptions for his dad’s pharmacy grow up to be one of the nation’s top experts on infectious diseases? It was a perfect story to share in a picture book biography, and I was delighted when Dr. Fauci agreed to an interview over Zoom. Simon & Schuster will publish Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor, illustrated by Alexandra Bye, in late June.
Immersing oneself in the world of infectious disease might seem like a strange pandemic coping mechanism, but other authors were also inspired to write about the reason for the lockdown. Theanne Griffith’s "Magnificent Makers" series launched with Random House in May 2020, and by then, she had already decided what the fourth book in her series had to be.
“As soon as it became clear that we were in a global pandemic, I knew that I needed to write a 'Magnificent Maker' book on germs and how to stop spreading them,” said Griffith. “Germs have been a major theme in kids’ lives for the last year, and I wanted to tap into that. I wanted to give them a safe (and fun!) space to explore the subject and learn more.”
Griffith was excited to incorporate laboratory-based science techniques into Magnificent Makers: The Great Germ Hunt, which comes out on October 5.
Germs also take center stage in Deborah Hopkinson’s The Deadliest Diseases Then and Now, which will be out from Scholastic October 5. It’s part of a new series that emphasizes the use of primary sources and historical thinking skills. Like History Smashers: Plagues and Pandemics, it looks at outbreaks in history, including the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, and polio.
“The final section deals with the coronavirus pandemic,” said Hopkinson. It includes contributions from current “coronavirus chroniclers,” including middle school students. “The goal is to put the coronavirus pandemic in the context of the three main plague pandemics and the 1918 flu pandemic, and allow readers to compare then and now.”
For other authors, the pandemic offered a serious plot twist. Kurtis Scaletta was partway through a draft of a novel about a measles epidemic that left kids alone at home because school was closed and their parents had to work. Back in 2019, he’d worried that the idea of schools closing for several weeks was a bit hard to believe, a concern he laughs about now.
In September 2020, Scaletta started over from scratch with the same characters but a new disease and a totally different story.
“Seeing my own son struggle with online learning, frustrated with the carelessness of others prolonging the pandemic, and longing to see his friends definitely motivated me to write about a kid in an extreme isolation situation,” Scaletta said. He continued to work on the novel (working title: It’s Dangerous to Go Alone) as the real-world outbreak dragged on.
For younger readers, pandemic book offerings tend to focus on helpers and hope. There are rainbow picture books, inspired by families who put rainbows in their windows for others to find on neighborhood walks. The World Made a Rainbow by Michelle Robinson and Emily Hamilton (Bloomsbury, October 2020) celebrates the power of making connections, even when people have to be apart. And There Is a Rainbow by Theresa Trinder and Grant Snider (Chronicle, January 2021) reminds readers that there are brighter days waiting on the other side of the pandemic.
“Rainbows are metaphors for so many things, of course, but I kept thinking: now they’re a symbol of our kids’ resilience, too,” said Griffith, who wrote the book during the pandemic while caring for her two kids whose routines had been upended.
For Brian Floca, it wasn’t rainbows but the vehicles of essential workers that provided comfort and routine during the lockdown.
“I have enjoyed sketching the places and people of New York City since I first moved here, over 20 years ago now,” Floca wrote in the author’s note of his picture book Keeping the City Going (Atheneum, April 2021), a celebration of all the essential workers who were out doing their jobs while everyone else stayed home. “In the spring of 2020, with the arrival of COVID-19, drawing what I saw around me in the city took on an additional meaning and purpose; it became one small way of trying to stay oriented in a place that felt suddenly transformed and unfamiliar….I found myself pulled, in particular, to the vehicles still out on the streets, the stubborn exceptions to the city’s new stillness. (We all have our coping mechanisms, and drawing vehicles is apparently one of mine.)”
LeUyen Pham’s picture book Outside, Inside offers another grateful nod to essential workers, with spreads showing city employees and hospital staff, the folks who couldn’t stay home because they “needed to be where they needed to be.”
Like Floca, Pham sketched her way through the first weeks of quarantine, capturing moments from each day. “It was my way of coping with events as they unfolded,” she wrote in the book’s author’s note. Those small things she noticed – neighbors’ smiles under their masks and teddy bears in windows—all found their way into the book’s illustrations. The final spread is a bright, fold-out illustration promising better days to come in Spring, as families hug and friends reunite. It’s an ending that will bring hope to housebound kids—and their grownups, too.
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