Keeping Children Safe during the Pandemic: Self-Published Picture Books

An obvious advantage of self-publication is a quick turnaround time: a writer can respond to rapidly shifting social currents faster than with a trade publisher, who may be reluctant to move quickly on a subject whose relevance may wilt within weeks or months.  A full-service self-publishing outfit like Zuri Book Pros, for example, offers an author plenty of options for the book’s look and feel.  Depending upon the desired illustration style, the $40-60 per page charge includes layout, unlimited changes, and no royalty fees.   A flurry of picture books explaining the concept and practice of social distancing, the necessity of wearing masks, and the challenges of on-line learning entered the marketplace of ideas in May via self-publication and they can be identified on the final page with the colophon “Made in the U.S.A.” with the date of printing in Middletown, Delaware (most often), which may indicate printing on demand at an Amazon facility.

Another reason many authors like self-publication is greater control of self-promotion on an Amazon store,  YouTube channel, and social media accounts, on top of the more traditional methods of an illustrated series list or author bio prominently placed within the book.  Several of these timely titles are the latest additions to well-established series featuring signature characters like  Little Spot, who helpfully reminds little distance learners about one of the most important things to do before an on-line class in the pamphlet on dos and don’ts of distance learning. The early childhood educator, Shondra M. Quarles (@eyeheartteaching), lists her award from the National Celebrity Educators and being selected as a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Indie Author Award competition.  Artist and proud mom of two, Diane Albers tries to increase the instructional value of her “Inspire to Create a Better You” series by offering free “printables” and worksheets on her website on the final page of advertisements.  The slickest of the three is the MyDragonBooks.com. The creator Steve Herman reveals nothing about himself beyond a self-characterization as  “passionate about teaching children valuable social and emotional life lessons through his cute, fun, and relatable dragon children’s books.”   The merch has been thought through carefully: stickers, soft toys, audio and activity books, and art prints (no artists credited) plus bulk shipping for orders over $25.  Any visitor to the site can download for free a high-res coloring sheet, which the author encourages customers to return to him filled in with crayons.

The two most successful of this group of pandemic picture books—and by “successful” I mean are good reads and have a fair chance of  influencing children’s behavior for the better–are the most lively and life-affirming. Shondra M. Quarles’ No, Calvin! could only have been written by a teacher.  The twenty-five word text is brought to life by the Turkish illustrator Hatice Bayramogul ‘s pictures of Calvin forgetting all the rules his teacher is trying to drill into him.  He’s an energetic, exasperating little sweetie and when the mask finally goes on the right way, Calvin and his teacher flash heart-hands and she tells him that she loves him. Katie Sedmak recognizes the difficulty of teaching children to push down their natural desire to express affection by squeezing, kissing, and bouncing.  Her If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug! is an adorable illustrated poem that models how to communicate friendship through laughter, listening, gift-giving, and smiling acted out by jolly,  even boisterous, animals.  The lion recommends, “If you can’t share snoring / Share roars,/ Chests puffed, manes fluffed, / We see who growls the loudest.”   The tough reality of social distancing is acknowledged with a light touch, while presenting the alternatives as proof of people’s capacity to adapt and to enjoy  it. 

School is Different this Year and That’s Okay co-authored by Susan Leininger and Julie Bair tries hard to normalize the extraordinary with reassurances that different solutions for different families and different reactions by different kids to the same circumstances is perfectly normal, which is true.  The happy  community of  birds and beasts are quick to see the upside of a year that promises to be anything but business-as-usual.  On-line shopping sure beats dragging the kids from store to the store for non-existent packs of toilet paper.   The mice mask, the giraffes do not, and it’s all cool.   Unfortunately, the authors’ depiction of a complete and easy-going tolerance within the community hits a false note when over the summer we have all learned how quickly the act of mask-wearing could be politicized and used as a divisive symbol of political affiliation.   

Steve Herman, the creator of the My Dragon Books series, takes a stricter approach to training children the way they should go, as demonstrated by his young dragon whisperer Drew.  His hapless pet Diggory Doo looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and some species of dinosaur, not a miniature menacing Smaug sleeping on a mountain of glittering ill-gotten gains.  Diggory is a creature to whom Drew can quite sharply order not to torch his mask accidentally, finger sternly raised.. (Herman failed to take it into consideration that Diggory’s compliance with Drew’s prohibition would require the fire-breathing pet to hold its breath the entire time it was masked.) Poor old Diggory gets in more trouble for coveting his friend’s  smart face-covering so much that he suggests a swop (a complete non-starter) and for giving Drew a mighty snap in the face with a mask cum sling-shot.   Eventually  the miserable beast confesses how much he hates wearing a mask and tearfully concedes that he will try to be a good sport and wear it because Drew tells him to, but  he still doesn’t understand why.  After Drew patiently explains it all to Diggory. he realizes that by wearing the mask, he is nothing less than a public health superpower and is inspired to contribute to the cause of containing COVID-19.

Lucy’s Mask by Lisa Sirkis Thompson builds to the same realization, but tries to engage the little reader’s moral sense through the main character’s imaginative flight about all the exciting things she can be as soon as her mother finishes making her a mask.   It takes just a few words from her mother to convince Lucy that she will be playing a much more important role than an ordinary superhero when she wears a mask that covers her mouth instead of her eyes.   Off they go in their masks to visit Grandmother while keeping them all safe.  That is a kind of everyday heroism we can all  emulate…

Learning Table Manners Can be Hilarious!

Of all the rules of life’s road,  table manners are probably among the most valuable ones we learn.  A meal is a social situation that is most pleasant when participants are mindful of monitoring self-expression.  However, when a small person in a high chair next to the table is present, everyone else must stifle their heartfelt wish to be enjoy their meal in peace and quiet a safe distance away.  But how to teach the small person that flinging pureed peas from a spoon makes a disagreeable mess no one wants to clean up while the lemon chicken grows cold?  Some public-minded picture book artists have ridden to the rescue by pairing clearly expressed standards with funny illustrations.

Diane Goode’s inspiration for Mind Your Manners! (2005) was The Child’s Spelling Book (4th ed.: Hartford: Increase Cooke & Co., 1802), which includes a section of thirty-five explicit prohibitions for good behavior at meals, such as “Throw not any thing under the table” or “Take not the salt with a greesy knife.”  Goode puts courtesy into action by imagining that a well-mannered family has accepted an invitation to dine at the Abbotts.  She teases a narrative out of a cleverly chosen sample of prohibitions that demonstrate how the hosts cheerfully embarrassed their guests. The dining room table extends across the double-page spread, which provides ample room to show the various things four adults, four children, two dogs and one cat ought not have done that evening.

Dinner is well underway.  On the left, Mr. Abbott and his son are shouting over the person in the middle, who, with a pained expression on her face, remains silent, remembering that “If thy superiors be discoursing, meddle not with the matter; but be silent, except thou art spoken unto.”  On the right, Mrs. Abbott is holding forth even though she should know that a polite person ought to “Drink not, nor speak with any thing in thy mouth.”  On the floor there is a stand-off between the spaniel and the cat, who don’t care if they are breaking the rule “Stare not in the face of any one (especially thy superiors) nor fix thine eye on the plate of another.”
The puzzle picture with a test is central to the pedagogical strategy of the husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner (she’s the writer, he’s the illustrator) in It’s a Spoon not a Shovel (1995).  Each full-page illustration shows a set of characters negotiating sticky social situation.  On the facing page, the problem is posed as a question with three possible answers.  After choosing the one he or she thinks is best answer, the reader can check to see if the letter he chose is hidden in the picture, along with teeny pictures of a dinosaur, rabbit, cat, and bee which were added just for fun.  Here is the dilemma of Wolfgang the Wolf when he introduces to his brothers his buddy Lambert the Lamb, who will be staying for dinner.

Should Wolfgang say:

a. “Lambert, this is Howler, Snarler, and Fang.”

b. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

c. “Hubba Bubba!”

“Pleased to meet you,” Lambert bleats, and the very hunger wolves politely growl:

d. “Mother’s red pajamas.”

e. “Where’s the salt and pepper?”

f. “We’re so glad to have you for dinner, Lambert.”

If one fails to find the letter(s) of the right answers (and they are not very easy to find) there is a key with the locations of the letters in the pictures printed upside down on the final page.  Try the tailpiece if the previous picture stumped you.

For pure verbal and visual ingenuity, Table Manners, the edifying Story of two Friends whose Discovery of good Manners Promises them a glorious Future ( 2001) by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, takes the cake. The two friends are Chester, the tall, thin, green-complexioned alter ego of Rashka, and Dudunya, the squatty, slow-witted, round-faced orange fellow who channels Radunsky.

The process of civilization begins when Chester gently, affectionately says to his smutty-faced friend,  “Dudunya, if I may say so, you look like a pig.”  Chester shows Dudunya that the importance of the place setting–plate, glass, and napkin–lies in its power to prevent a human being from eating like a wild animal.  With a knife and fork, it is possible to  divide a big baked potato into sixteen cubes  “small enough to fit into your mouth.”  Chewing is essential to good digestion, but not at the expense of spraying the members of your dear family with bits of candy sprinkles, bread crumbs, schwarma or drops of cream sauce.  “This,” notes Chester sagely, “I learned from my father’s father’s father.  One day you will pass this on to your children’s children’s children’s.”   But when Chester lays out of a schedule of meal times and what is typically served when, Dudunya is rapt: “Oh wow.  What a busy day of eating.”

The most critical question of them all is addressed in this colorful, dynamic double-page spread.   Provisions have been made at the bottom for the eater to select the sweet of her or his choice… 

Chester demonstrates how to eat messy foods like roast duck dripping with sauce without soiling his hands or shirt, but Dudunya needs a few more lessons before passing the test with flying colors (yes, this picture book also features a multiple-choice test to measure mastery).  Alas, he draws the wrong lesson from his education in manners, but luckily Chester sets him straight and prevents him from starvation!How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea (2017) by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska teaches something just as important as remembering that a spoon is not a shovel. The spoiled queen goes around the world in search of the best of the best, when she can no longer tolerate the slop being offered her at breakfast.  It turns out that it is not the method of making the tea that matters, although she enjoys the cups of tea Noriko in Japan, Sumil in India, and Rana in Turkey brew using completely different equipment and recipes.  The queen takes the secret back home with her and invites her new friends to a royal tea party.

The truly charming and not alarming person knows that extending warm hospitality to the people around the table will make them feel more welcome than the most exquisite tea served in the most beautiful china cup with pinkies up!