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About six weeks in...

About six weeks into our collective social distancing/parent schooling experiment, I went to the shelf to pick out a few picture books for my first grader to read independently. I found myself rejecting book after book: too much about school, too many friends playing together, too much excitement outside the house.

On a whim, I posted on Facebook, “Picture books about kids going to school need to have a trigger warning these days.” Apparently the thought resonated, as fellow parents shared their experiences about having to talk with kids about why their favorite characters are still allowed to hug and about parents’ own feelings of resentment at the togetherness that’s so effortless and common in the children’s books in our personal libraries. (Because, in addition to all the other struggles, with public libraries closed, many find ourselves getting extra familiar with the books on our own shelves.)

I started thinking about what books feel appropriate for this strange and unprecedented time period, and wondering how long it will take for children’s authors to create stories that reflect this reality. I’ve seen some “social stories” popping up online to help explain quarantines and viruses to young children, but I’m not sure they’ll have staying power as literature. Many authors and illustrators have taken to social media platforms to offer read-alouds and drawing classes, but they’re mostly referencing pre-pandemic work.

Mo Willems, speaking directly to us from our TV, telling us that he, too, was staying home, provided a lot of comfort and creativity those first few weeks, and all of his books have continued to be part of our pandemic canon (and fortunately, Amazon was able to bring us more when we needed to expand our options). My son was inspired to write an Elephant and Piggy-style book of his own called, I Need a Friend, where he, the main character, was stuck in a box. That told us everything we needed to know about how social distancing felt to a seven-year-old.

We’ve managed to have good feelings about reading books starring animals and monsters, rather than kids, and books set in fantasy lands that don’t feel like the familiar outdoors we’re all craving. Some current favorites have been Giraffe Problems, The Adventures of Beekle, Don’t Push the Button, The Princess in Black, Dragons Love Tacos, and The Day the Crayons Quit (which is just on the edge of being about school, but, ultimately, is about crayons). Both of my kids also enjoy books of facts and the Guinness Book of World Records, though all the records about “largest crowds” seem both far-fetched and outdated.

Ironically, soon after this all started, my third grader and I started reading Sideways Stories from Wayside School together as a read aloud. Where I felt I needed to protect my son from school scenes, I gravitated toward reading to his older sister about the familiarity of school and friends. (As an aside, I remember the book fondly from my own childhood, but I didn’t remember certain scenes that haven’t aged well, like when a strange man shows up in the classroom with a gun; and I didn’t remember, in general, just how odd these books are!) We moved on to the second and third installments in this series, and being immersed in their strange school world has been a great escape and reminder of the quirks of classmates being in a room together all day. The third book actually starts with the school reopening after a long closure, during which the kids were separated from each other. Though my daughter didn't comment on the parallels to her current experience, this chapter felt painfully relevant to me.

Nearly two months in, I feel myself entering a stage where the most realistic books feel the most fantastical. I hope to keep sharing a wide range of picture- and chapter books with my kids, and I expect all our reactions will continue to shift as we crave the reminders of normalcy and also feel further removed from them. As we head towards nicer weather, I’m mentally categorizing books about camp and beaches and amusement parks as stories we may need to avoid. I’ll keep scanning our shelves for the best options, and I can only hope that by the time our favorite authors have published their Coronavirus Chronicles, we’ll be able to check them out from the library while hanging out with our friends and then sending our kids back to school to read whatever they like.

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their two children. She works in the Jewish community and is the advice columnist for the Jewish Exponent. Miriam has been reviewing for the Horn Book Guide since 2005, when she was a student at Lesley University.
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