Coronavirus and children: The book that shows you how to beat 'Billy the Virus'
It was mid-March and lockdown loomed. A stay-at-home order was about to be imposed. Schools and colleges were to close, playgrounds shut down. A once-in-a-generation crisis stood at America’s doorstep.
Fatima Faisal, a 27-year-old from New York City, felt a chill creep up her spine.
“I felt anxious watching the news and I immediately thought about children and how they would cope with all of these dramatic changes to their lives,” Faisal tells Middle East Eye. "I wanted to do something."
Faisal, who has a journalism degree from Syracuse University, says she decided to put her passion for medicine - she is going to medical school later this year - and her love of writing to some use.
Over the next two days, she did nothing else but write, edit and rewrite the words for a children's book.
She then teamed up with Carly Wright, an illustrator friend. Within a month, the duo had the book self-published and up on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle book. They called it The Incredible Docs vs. Billy the Bad Virus.
The 18-page picture book tells the story of a pair of doctors as superheroes. Only these superheroes wear N-95 masks and blue scrubs, a white coat trailed by a red cape. Together they fight "Billy the virus", helping break down the health crisis to its most basic elements: "He can make it hard for them to breathe in and out.”
The book implores kids to play their part in helping “defeat" the virus by washing their hands, cleaning up after themselves and staying home.
“We are superheroes and people call us the incredible docs,” the two doctors say as they hover in the skies above a group of kids sitting in a park. “We need your help on a very important mission!”
Reaching a diverse community
Children under the age of 14 make up about 26 percent of the world's population and health experts have repeatedly advised that open communication with children should be an intrinsic part of containing the virus.
Faisal and Wright's effort is one of two children's books released over the past few weeks specifically geared for children of colour and immigrant communities, hit especially hard by coronavirus in the United States. Many immigrants and communities of colour in the city live in cramped housing, performing essential and often unprotected jobs. Underlying health conditions like diabetes are a significant challenge, turning areas like the Bronx and Queens into fertile ground for the pandemic.
According to data released by the New York state government, African Americans and Hispanic communities constitute 60% of all deaths in the city.
In Faisal and Wright’s book, the doctors tell a series of different children how they might assist them in tackling the virus: “Remember to stay away from anyone that you think could be sick."
In many ways, it is less a story and more an illustrated guide for children.
Faisal says that part of the vision of the book was to ensure that black and brown children would be able to see themselves reflected on the pages, adding that she made an attempt to include a diversity of characters.
Children's books are notorious for their lack of diversity. In 2018, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that whereas 50% of books included white characters, only 10% included black characters, while Native American characters were found in just 1% of books.
‘Why we stay at home’
This week, authors Samantha Harris and Devon Scott released a 10-page booklet, Why We Stay Home, in which young sisters Millie and Suzie discuss the virus before they go to bed.
According to the authors, both medical students from Southern California, the book, subtitled "Suzie learns about coronavirus," is the first part of a series they hope to roll out in the future. The first book in the series is free to download and the authors said they were hoping to raise enough funds to keep the entire series free for readers.
Millie and Suzie lie in bed and talk about being at home during the lockdown.
"Yes it is nice having mommy and daddy home with Suzie", Millie says. "But we have to make sure we remember the reason we are all home right now."
Her sister responds: "Yes I know Millie. Because of coronavirus... but what is the coronavirus, anyway?"
In contrast, Faisal and Wright steer clear from words like “coronavirus”, "Covid-19" or "pandemic”, and phrases like "social distancing".
"A three-year-old doesn't need to know the word 'corona'"
- Fatima Faisal, author
“A three-year-old doesn't need to know the word 'corona',” Faisal explains. “I didn’t want to scare them... I really wanted the book to be basic so that children could understand what a virus was, what they could do and most importantly, that it was going to be okay.”
The book, then, tries to keep the details as "benign as possible”, sticking instead to a programme of prevention: “washing hands”, “sneezing into your sleeves” and “stay away from anyone who might be sick”, mirroring in many ways the guidelines published by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for parents.
The CDC advises parents to "consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on Covid-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety."
It also suggests: "Give children information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child."
'Allows children to ask questions'
More than 19,000 people have lost their lives to the virus in New York City. The accompanying lockdown has devastated livelihoods, spread panic and confusion.
Faisal and Wright's book, released on 19 April, has already received plaudits from parents and school teachers trying to productively explain to youngsters why they are mostly indoors, unable to go to the playground or school, or to meet friends and family; why everything is just generally upside down. All proceeds of the book, Faisal says, will go to the charity No Kid Hungry.
For some parents or teachers, the gentle storytelling and colourful illustrations filled with light messaging, have come in very handy. The Incredible Docs vs. Billy the Bad Virus even caught the eye of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who mentioned the book in his April 25 newsletter.
Though there has been a plethora of literature and explainer videos on coronavirus since the pandemic began, materials geared for children are still scarce.
Sarah Kamya, an elementary school guidance counsellor in Manhattan, told MEE that children's books are proving to be an immensely popular resource.
"Personally, I like that The Incredible Docs vs. Billy the Bad Virus focuses primarily on hygiene and allows parents to tell the story in their own way and on their terms," she told MEE.
Barely days after the book was released, Kamya used it in an online reading session for children at her school: "They liked that it was a quick read, just enough to hold their attention and drive home a message."
“Being able to have a book that just lasts forever, and something you can hold in your hands, is just great,” Kamya added.
Similarly, Shruti Babu, from Austin, Texas, told MEE the book gave her daughters, aged six and eight, a reference point to help deal with the changes around them.
Babu says she had been struggling to explain the virus and its consequences to her children. While looking for some material online, she stumbled upon another parent talking about The Incredible Docs vs. Billy the Bad Virus on Instagram.
She ordered it immediately. Her youngest liked the drawings, while the elder read and tried to emulate the directions.
"This is all brand new for adults and kids. And they are not seeing their teachers, their friends. Everyone is walking around with masks. Everything has changed overnight for them. I wanted something that wouldn't scare them,” she told MEE.
‘Kung fu doctors’
Faisal and Wright’s book is dedicated to “healthcare professionals, first responders and essential workers for your kindness and care during difficult times.” Their role, the book seems to say, is paramount. They punch, smash and defeat the virus.
Some doctors have asked that the public refrain from describing them as superheroes because it distorts the real emotional and physical consequences of working in the field, while allowing authorities to remain complacent in providing adequate equipment and protection for health workers.
Dozens of healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses as well as non-medical staff at hospitals, have died in the US since the pandemic began.
But Faisal, writer of the Incredible Docs, says she wanted to both showcase doctors as superheroes as a way to honour their service and inspire children to feel they were part of the effort, too.
“I wanted them to realise they are not helpless, and that they can help doctors defeat this."
And by portraying the children as cheerfully following the guidelines, they are not just protecting themselves, but freeing up the doctors to do their jobs (and roundhouse kick the virus, if needed).
“If you do all of these things, you will become superheroes just like us and the rest of our great team,” the doctors say at the end of the book.
“Do not fear! Together, we will beat Billy the bad virus and save the world!”
The Incredible Docs vs. Billy the Bad Virus by Fatima Faisal and illustrated by Carly Wright, is available on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle.