Storytelling and Covid-19

The current pandemic is a good time to remember a post by Amy Ryder last year on the power of storytelling in medical environments for children. Amy’s post is about how children (like adults!) use narrative to make sense of the world around them, and the potential therein for making medical settings less intimidating:

Storytelling is everywhere in medicine: history taking itself is a form of personal narrative, each generation has its own picturebook equivalent of Topsy and Tim Go To The Doctor and medical charities (as exemplified here by The Grand AppealEast Anglia Children’s Hospices and Young Epilepsy) use ‘patient stories’ both to encourage donations and to support other children and families experiencing the isolation that illness or disability can bring. I don’t see it as any coincidence that you navigate the website of the Bristol Children’s Hospital Play Department as though turning the pages of a storybook, or that the NHS itself, on its page advising how to prepare children for a hospital visit, advises caregivers to “play doctors and nurses or operations using teddies and dolls, and read story books about being in hospital”.

The Power of Storytelling in Medical Environments for Children

Amy’s thoughtful post brings to mind Barbara Hardy’s powerful assertion of the role of narrative in how we understand our own lives:

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.

Hardy, Barbara. Towards a Poetics of Fiction: 3) An Approach through Narrative. Novel. Vol. 2, no. 1., 1968.

It’s not that narrative saves live so much as that narrative is life; without it, our lives lose shape. If, as Amy so cogently notes, storytelling can transform a scary experience into a manageable one, then it’s no surprise that children’s literature is already emerging in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With that in mind, here are some itinerant thoughts about picturebooks which might be useful for the pandemic — some classic texts, and new freely available electronic picturebooks created in the last few months to help explain the pandemic to children, quite literally at the very moment it unfolds.

Pre-Covid Picturebooks

Some classic picturebooks about hygiene have a new gravity in the context of the ongoing pandemic. For example, the protagonist in Tony Ross’ classic I Don’t Want to Wash My Hands, learns all about avoiding ‘the nasties’, and even worries, ‘Do I have to wash my hands after washing hands?” While humorous, her fear echoes a paranoia about hygiene now commonplace, and offers a space where readers can negotiate it. Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost revolves around a personified microbe called Min, who takes the reader through the scenic landscape of the human body as a way to express the value of good hygiene! The meta premise of the book utilises the broader trend of post-modern picturebooks which draw attention to their own materiality (e.g. Press Here by Herve Tullet).

As an art form, the picturebook is quintessentially well-suited to helping children and young people work through tough emotions. For example, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff uses the powerful symbol of an invisible string that connects families and friends even when they are apart. This concept is similar to Torill Kove’s award-winning short animation Threads, targeted at a more general audience, which uses the symbol of a red ball of thread to represent the evolving connection between a mother and child as the years go by. (In fact, excuse the detour, but red threads are pretty common as symbols in children’s visual culture now that we think about it — The Red Thread by Filippa Hella comes to mind, as well as Tord Nygren’s earlier classic picturebook with the same title. Perhaps the image of a ball of string is so frequent because it symbolises the circular time of childhood and the linear imposition of narrative, both at once. But that’s another post entirely!)

Threads by Torill Kove, 2018

Covid-19 picturebooks

This fantastic free database on the New York City School Libraries website lists the wave of new electronic picturebooks about the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s fascinating and inspiring to see these books appear in real time, perhaps especially because their purpose in some ways seems so at odds with what we expect from children’s literature as snobby scholars. These books are concerned with clear messaging, whether about the role of good hygiene, wearing masks, and the importance of taking care of your mental health. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that these books are, quite literally, saving lives. In this way, they are — deep breath — didactic, and whatever literary merit they possess is secondary to their immediate application. This tension between aesthetics and pedagogy is an essential dilemma of children’s literature — as form, mode, product, culture — and so it is really important as scholars to pay attention to these first new representations as they emerge, even if we would rather discount them as ephemeral or substandard.

The database features a lot of different picturebooks, mostly American and in English, but with different languages too. Several picturebooks have a good amount of diverse representation which is important not only because Covid-19 is a global pandemic but because it exacerbates systemic racism and structural inequality: for example. Black people are four times more likely than white people to die in the UK and three times more likely in the USA. Imagine seeing a copy of I Love You from the NABU collection of Covid-19 picturebooks a few months ago: a parent explains to her child that she can’t see her grandparents due to “the new coronavirus.” Or Count Cough-ula, about a Rwandan vampire who comes back to life after sleeping for 100 years to show the people in the neighbourhood how to avoid transmission of Covid-19 through good cough hygiene.

Staying Home by Sally Nicholls and Viviane Schwarz

Others are a bit more confusing — for example, the eponymous characters in Captain Corona and the 19 Covid Warriors are the good guys, rather than the virus personified, as the title perhaps implies. Some others are by established names and presses, such as the Alex Scheffler-illustrated Coronavirus: A Book for Children and Valerie Thomas and Laura Owen’s Winnie and Wilbur Stay at Home.

For older readers, we should give a shout-out to The Book of Hopes, edited by Katherine Rundell for the National Literacy Trust, which features the Centre’s very own alumna Clémentine Beauvais. Picturebook or story-book, one thing is certain — paying attention to how children’s literature can help children deal with Covid-19 is one step towards acknowledging its complex, ongoing impact on children and young people’s wellbeing.

For adults?

School closures and social distancing means those raising children may feel under pressure about being good reading role models in their children’s lives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a child watching hours upon hours of Baby Shark on a loop. Even so, there are plenty of opportunities for adults (if not children!) to deepen their knowledge and understanding of more classic types of children’s literature and its potential. That might mean using this helpful guide to supporting reading for pleasure by age group, or signing up for one of these two relevant short courses that the Open University is offering for free:

Exploring books for children: words and pictures

This free short course offers an insight in how picturebooks work (to quote Maria Nikolajeva, former chair of the Centre). Anyone can appreciate children’s literature, but this course looks like a really valuable way to gain a deeper understanding of some key features of the picturebook as a form. Read more about it here: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/exploring-books-children-words-and-pictures/content-section-0?active-tab=review-tab

Encouraging book talk in the school library

This free short course is targeted towards people who work in school libraries, but it is relevant for anyone who works (or even volunteers) in a library. Just to clarify, ‘Book talk’ is exactly what it sounds like: getting children and young people to talk about books between themselves. Book talk is defined as one of the four key principle of reading for pleasure, alongside reading aloud, creating diverse and supportive reading environments, and encouraging independent reading and agency. See more information about this here: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/encouraging-book-talk-the-school-library/content-section-0?active-tab=content-tab

To conclude, perhaps it should be noted that we are encouraging adults to read children’s literature for its own sake and for their own pleasure — as well as for children! Celebrating children’s books is a radical act at any age.

Gabriel Duckels is a Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge.

Amy Ryder is a current MEd student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. Prior to returning to study, she was the Community & Events Fundraiser for Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appealthe Bristol Children’s Hospital charity, and then a secondary school teacher of English. Her research interest in the intersections between narrative and medicine for children combines these experiences.

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