Winning COVID-19 children’s books address facts, emotions surrounding pandemic

By Rebecca Baggett | Emory Report | May 18, 2020

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In “COVID-19 Helpers,” the winning story, Seattle-based author and illustrator Beth Bacon and Kary Lee describe how people from all walks of life are helping to fight the virus.

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When Jeffrey Koplan’s grandchildren began asking him questions about COVID-19, he was inspired to help provide answers — not just for them, but for all kids. Koplan serves as vice president for global health at Emory and founded the Emory Global Health Institute, which launched a competition for a children’s e-book about the pandemic.

In keeping with EGHI’s 13-year history of bringing diverse disciplines together to tackle global health issues, the competition called for e-books that could help explain the pandemic and the changing behaviors that have come with it in a way that would appeal to children ages 6-9. The competition was announced April 14, with submissions due by April 29. While EGHI marketed the competition widely, organizers never expected that 486 participants would register and that 260 of those would submit books.

“We received an unexpected but terrific response to the competition. Not only did we receive 260 book submissions, but these books came from authors living as close as Decatur, Georgia, to as far away as Australia and South Africa,” Koplan says. “We were also pleased to have established authors and illustrators submit books along with first-time authors and illustrators, including some authors who are still children themselves.”

EGHI recruited 70 judges with backgrounds in medicine, public health, education, publishing and the arts to review the e-book submissions. Three judges independently reviewed each book using criteria provided by EGHI. Because there were so many high-quality submissions, EGHI added four $1,000 honorable mention prizes to the winning $10,000 first-place award that was publicized in the competition announcement. 

Beth Bacon and Kary Lee, both from the Seattle area, wrote and illustrated the winning book entitled “COVID-19 Helpers,” which tells the story of how everyone, including children, can help in the fight against COVID-19. Bacon is the author of four children’s books and Lee has illustrated five other books. However, this is the first time they have had to develop the story and illustrations for a book in such a short period of time.

“Normally, it takes me at least six months to create the art for a picture book. With this book, I had 10 days. I wasn’t sure this would be possible, but after reading Beth’s manuscript, I fell in love with the story. I had to try,” Lee says. 

While Lee’s and Bacon’s efforts paid off with their winning entry, they both say the experience of developing the ideas for the book and producing it was rewarding in and of itself. 

“For me, the whole process was a joy. I love making children’s books, and this project combines four things I truly value: health, education, reading and art. It’s also very rewarding to see a book develop and change through collaboration with a creative partner,” says Bacon.

Lee says the most rewarding aspect of the competition for her was the “the opportunity to create a tool for kids through storytelling” while working with a great partner and having their vision recognized by EGHI.

Numerous authors who submitted books echoed this sentiment as well as discussed how working on their book gave them an outlet to try and help in the fight against COVID-19 beyond washing their hands and practicing social distancing.

Access all of the Emory Global Health Institute’s winning and honorable mention COVID-19 children’s e-books here.

The winning story

“COVID-19 Helpers”

Author: Beth Bacon

Illustrator: Kary Lee

In “COVID-19 Helpers,” Seattle-based author and illustrator Beth Bacon and Kary Lee describe how people from all walks of life are helping to fight the virus. In age-appropriate language and using beautiful illustrations, Bacon and Lee describe what COVID-19 is, how it is transmitted and all of the people who are working to keep everyone safe. The key message of the book is that we can all help fight COVID-19, including children.

What impact do you hope the book will have on children?

Bacon: I hope kids will feel proud about the contributions they are making. Staying away from school, missing sports games, skipping birthday celebrations — those are real sacrifices. These kids are not doing “nothing.” Kids make up an important part of an overall strategy to reduce the spread of this disease through social distancing. Until we find a medical solution, each of us has a part to play. 

Lee: I hope it gives kids insight into their important role in this fight. Kids are smart. They understand what’s going on sometimes better than the adults. We need them to know they have a voice, and that we’re listening. I hope this book gives them that edge, and understanding that they not only matter, but their actions have an impact on this pandemic. 

Honorable mentions

Bray Bray Conquers the Coronavirus cover 

“Bray Bray Conquers the Coronavirus”

Author: Ashley Maxie-Moreman

Illustrator: Joanah Whitely

Bray Bray Conquers the Coronavirus is the second book in Ashley Maxie-Moreman’s and Joanah Whitely’s “Adventures of Bray Bray” series, which Maxie-Moreman created when she could not find children’s books for her nephew that featured protagonists who were young black boys. Maxie-Moreman, an Atlanta native who is currently a doctoral student in counseling psychology in Philadelphia, has been providing teletherapy services to children and their families during the pandemic. She has seen children of all ages struggling to cope with the changes that COVID-19 has brought to their lives. When she learned of EGHI’s contest from her sister-in-law, a local Atlanta middle school teacher, she knew she had the topic for the second book in her series. Maxie-Moreman felt COVID-19 was an especially important and appropriate topic for the series as data is showing that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

What impact do you hope the book will have on children?

Maxie-Moreman: My hope is that “Bray Bray Conquers the Coronavirus” helps children to learn about COVID-19 symptoms, understand prevention recommendations, feel that their emotions (like fear, anxiety and sadness) are OK, and come up with their own plan to conquer the coronavirus.

Together Living Life with COVID-19 cover 

“Together: Living Life During COVID-19”

Author: Kevin Poplawski

Illustrator: Michael Rausch

In “Together: Living Life During COVID-19,” a young girl named Olivia learns what the coronavirus is, how to protect herself and others from catching it, and why her life changed so dramatically seemingly overnight. Poplawski and his wife are both Atlanta-area health care providers with two young daughters. His daughters’ questions and emotions about COVID-19 were his main inspiration for the book. Rausch’s inspiration was remembering how scary even everyday situations could be when he was a young child. He imagined placing a genuinely frightening pandemic into a child’s life, and was inspired to tell a story that would help make life feel more manageable for young children. “Together: Living Life During COVID-19” addresses both the emotions children may be feeling as well as provides useful information about the virus and the disease it causes.

What impact do you hope the book will have on children?

Poplawski: I think children need that safe space. Right now, a lot of their safe space has been taken from them. Any reassurance that can help them regain that safe space would put a smile on my face.

We're Going to be OK cover 

“We’re Going to be OK”

Author: Ebony Jade Hilton

Author: Leigh-Ann Webb

Illustrator: Ashleigh Corrin Webb 

In “We’re Going to be OK,” Hilton, Webb and Webb, all based in Virginia, tell the story of Parker, who wakes up one morning and learns that he is staying home from school and his parents are staying home from work because of the coronavirus. Written by two physicians who are also children’s book authors, “We’re Going to be OK” teaches children about COVID-19 and ways to protect themselves. The authors use engaging illustrations and language to connect with young children on their level. The book also includes activity pages that help children determine ways they can fight the pandemic. The authors say they were inspired to create the book to educate children on the impact that COVID-19 is having globally and on vulnerable communities such as the African American and Latinx communities, which are being hit the hardest by the pandemic. Hilton says “the enemy of fear is information” and “the purpose of the book was to inform and empower while at the same time allowing for vulnerability.” 

What impact do you hope the book will have on children?

A. Webb: I hope they are comforted in knowing that their feelings are valid. I hope this book helps them address those feelings, and also be equipped to take action with the tips and workbook-style pages we’ve provided. With feelings evolving daily, weekly, as the months go on, this can be a go-to resource for them to “check-in” with parents — or even with themselves in their own time — and have open conversations.

Cover of What Color is Today?

“What Color is Today?”

Author and illustrator: Alison Stephens

Inspired by Dr. Seuss’s “My Many Colored Days,” writer and illustrator Alison Stephens used the idea of color to express the emotions that children and adults may be feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic in “What Color is Today?” She researched the psychology of color and then began writing and illustrating the book, which is about a community dealing with the pandemic and the emotions its many members are feeling. While Stephens says it was a challenge writing language that was clear, age-appropriate and charming about something as complex and unpredictable as COVID-19, especially in such a short period of time, she is proud of the book and doesn’t think she would change it even if she had more time. A native Georgian, Stephens currently lives in San Diego. 

What impact do you hope the book will have on children?

Stephens: I hope it not only entertains children with some of its whimsy, but also makes them feel understood. I hope it helps them articulate and identify how they are feeling in the midst of anything, and to realize it’s OK to feel these things. I also hope it inspires children to ask questions: about COVID-19, about how it is affecting families and friends and what it is like to feel some of the colors.