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Answering Kids’ Questions About the Coronavirus, in Free Picture Books

Publishers and nonprofits are finding ways to get books and information to housebound children worldwide.

In “My Hero Is You,” a new illustrated book by Helen Patuck, a girl named Sara lies in bed at night, feeling scared and helpless. She misses seeing friends and going to school. As she drifts off, a dragon appears, and they fly all over the world together on a shared mission: teaching children how to keep themselves and their families safe from the novel coronavirus.

“Sometimes the most important thing we can do as friends is protect each other,” the dragon tells a group of children. “Even if that means staying away from each other for a while.”

The book, which is geared toward 6- to 11-year-olds, was developed in collaboration with multiple humanitarian organizations, including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and Save the Children. To create a story that explores children’s questions and fears about the epidemic, Ms. Patuck, an author and illustrator, drew on a survey of 1,700 children, parents and teachers in 104 countries.

“My Hero Is You” is one of several new children’s books about the virus that publishers and nonprofits are releasing free of charge, with the aim of giving children age-appropriate ways to learn about the pandemic.

That title and others are being made available as downloads and through free e-reading platforms like Worldreader, a nonprofit that provides e-books to disadvantaged readers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central and South America. The group’s growing collection of coronavirus-themed titles includes picture books about the importance of hand washing, illustrated stories and a graphic novel about children trying to cope during the pandemic, as well as straightforward reference materials about Covid-19.

Worldreader already had the technology, through its mobile reading app, to deliver digital texts to people with limited access to books. But the coronavirus pandemic suddenly made that project even more urgent. With countries across the globe on lockdown and public life at a standstill, more than 1.5 billion children are out of school, many of them cast into educational limbo, according to a United Nations agency. The pandemic has made it even harder for children in poor communities to access books, even as children in wealthier households adapt to online schools. As the crisis drags on, some fear that the education gap could widen permanently.“It’s becoming a learning crisis and it’s happening right before our eyes,” said David Risher, the co-founder and chief executive of Worldreader and a former Amazon executive. “We’re asking, What can we do to keep people reading and engaged?”

In response to the pandemic, Worldreader accelerated the release of its new app for school-age children, BookSmart, which features more than a thousand free children’s books curated by age group, language and region, with titles in English, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi. Worldreader is now rushing to add more books to its existing mobile reading platform for young adults, and is aiming to expand its reach by developing partnerships with organizations like CARE and Unicef and with the Ministry of Education in Peru.

The cover of “Coronavirus: A Book for Children,” a book published by Nosy Crow, a British children’s publisher, with illustrations by Axel Scheffler, the artist who created images for the best-selling children’s book “The Gruffalo.”Credit…via Worldreader

In India, where more than 250 million children have been affected by school closures, Worldreader is working with educational agencies and telecommunications companies to alert parents to its free e-reading service through WhatsApp and SMS group messages.

“The evidence is so overwhelming that without a literate and reading population, you can’t have a self-reliant, healthy population,” Mr. Risher said.

Other literacy organizations, nonprofits and subscription services have also opened up their e-book collections for children who are out of school. The digital reading platform Epic, which has more than 40,000 children’s e-books, has made its library available at no charge, allowing schoolteachers to give their students access to its e-books through June 30. Since the start of the pandemic, the nonprofit First Book has distributed more than a million print editions of children’s books, and has made downloadable e-books available to teachers to distribute to their students. In the past six weeks, teachers have used 724,000 download codes to access e-books for their students, surpassing the number of downloads for all of 2019, according to a spokeswoman for First Book. Scribd, an e-book and audiobook subscription service that includes 150,000 children’s and young adult titles, is offering free access to its digital library for 30 days. (One of the recommended reading lists is titled “Keeping kids busy at home.” “We’ve put together a list of kids’ books to help your household stay sane and even enjoy this time of forced family togetherness,” the description says.)

Worldreader remains focused on reaching children in the developing world, though they’ve discussed expanding to Europe and North America in the wake of school closures across those continents, Mr. Risher said, and the group’s BookSmart app is accessible in the United States and Britain.

Worldreader started with a trial program with e-readers in Africa in 2009, but a few years later the group shifted its focus to a mobile reading app for cellphones. Through partnerships with 426 different publishers, Worldreader built up a library of more than 12,000 e-books in more than 50 languages, including classics like “The Chronicles of Narnia” and contemporary best sellers like Mary Osborne’s “Magic Tree House” series and several of Neil Gaiman’s books for young readers. Penguin Random House has provided some 450 e-books for Worldreader’s library; Simon & Schuster has made 100 of its titles available, and plans to add another 100 books for the BookSmart app.

“They have been very assiduous about identifying the communities that need these books,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “Everyone’s at home, and everybody does not have the ability to do distance learning.”

Worldreader’s executives were reluctant at first to publish books about Covid-19, because the information being released by global health organizations and governments could change so rapidly. Then, in late March, they saw a surge in searches for coronavirus books among their users. “We were getting so many searches, we thought, OK, we need to service this need,” said Elizabeth Wood, the senior director of publishing and innovation for Worldreader.

Image An illustration from “Coronavirus: A Book for Children.

Within two days, the organization quickly pulled together information from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and made it available on its app.

Shortly after, they started looking for narratives that could help children explore their questions and fears about the pandemic. They found a handful of illustrated books about the coronavirus and began converting them into digital files that can be read on cellphones, with the goal of building a mini library of around 10 children’s books about the virus. The collection will include Ms. Patuck’s book, “My Hero Is You,” as well as a graphic novel about a group of kids who are trying to “keep themselves and their neighbors safe from Covid-19” and “Coronavirus: A Book for Children,” with illustrations by Axel Scheffler, the artist who created images for the best-selling children’s book “The Gruffalo.”

Image An illustration from “Coronavirus: A Book for Children.”Credit…Axel Scheffler, via Worldreader

Mr. Scheffler’s playful illustrations are paired with simple text about how the virus spreads, how to deal with boredom and loneliness and annoying siblings, and how to face the unknown. The book, which was developed with input from Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was released last week by the children’s publisher Nosy Crow as a free PDF. It was downloaded more than 500,000 times in just a few days.

“One day, quite soon, though nobody knows exactly when, you’ll be able to visit people you love who don’t live with you, play with your friends, go to school again and do lots of other things that you enjoy but that you can’t do now,” the final pages of the book say. “One day, this strange time will be over.”

By Alexandra Alter
April 14, 2020

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