Kids Books Haven’t Prepared Us for the Coronavirus

To understand the coming impact of the coronavirus, toddlers need to know what it’s really like to be sick. 

Originally Published: 
Corduroy Goes to the Doctor / Viking Books

Seuss and Sendak are the exceptions. Most toddler books fall into the how-to genre. Think of all those picture books featuring illustrations of beloved characters or oversaturated photos of kids doing the things they do. Going potty. Bathing without getting water in their eyes. Eating food. The bookshelf is mostly infotainment for toddlers.

One of the most popular subjects in this genre — by far the most popular in my house — is going to the doctor. Our selection is wide ranging. We have Bea Goes to the Doctor, Corduroy Goes to the Doctor, Daniel Visits the Doctor, The Berenstain Bears go to the Doctor, and, breaking the title convention, It’s Time For Your Checkup. The plots are all the same: Kid goes to the doctor. Kid plays with toys or sees goldfish. Kid gets measured (sometimes judged for their weight, Corduroy). Kid comes in contact with weird stethoscope and deals with its cold harsh metal surface. Kid gets ears and eyes checked. And then — conflict! — kid realizes they’re about to get a shot. Kid gets the shot (it’s not that bad) then arrives at the denouement and is promptly handed an oversized ice cream or a giant red ball. The lessons is clear: The doctor is totally not scary. (Also, subtextually, anti-vaxxers are assholes.)

Unfortunately, this is bullshit and toddlers know it. Needles hurt and make no sense. Doctors are weird strangers. I go to the hospital when I feel bad. I personally suspect that my kid’s fascination with these books has more to do with morbid curiosity than anything. Don’t we all like watching those propaganda videos from North Korea? A dance to celebrate another great harvest? I mean, I’ll watch, but I don’t buy it.

Before I further disparage toddler medical dramas, let me make it clear that shots are important and anti-vaxxers are assholes. The problem here isn’t the core idea, but the missed opportunity to address a real truth: People get sick, people get better, a lot of gross and unpleasant stuff happens in between.

Coronavirus is here and I really wish my kids understood the gravity of the situation. I will probably get sick. If I don’t (my hands are red from washing), someone we know will. This is scary to me because COVID-19 is not well studied or understood. Outcomes are all over the place. The whys are just coming to light. Sometimes it is rational to be scared. Sometimes that’s the mature, adult reaction. That idea — that fear (and even pain) are useful and potentially appropriate — is all but absent from children’s books.

That’s a shame. It’s a missed opportunity.

In my annoyance, I’ve found at least one book that eschews quick fixes and drives home the realities of being sick. In Llama Llama Home with Mama, the kid llama gets sick and runs us through all their symptoms, the gross taste of medicine (which, in the book, fixes nothing), and all the things mom sets up for recovery — namely, rest. Then – conflict! — “uh oh, mama’s throat is sore.” This part is crucial. When an adult is sick, things get weird. The parents can’t play, they need to rest, they lose faculties and turn inward. In the book, you can see the surprise and fear on the kid’s face as his mom’s symptoms get worse. But, like in reality for younger kids, fear quickly turns to boredom and there the book’s mantra shines — “being sick is such a bore.” The kid realizes mom needs rest, to lie in bed and read books. Then, the book ends. No miracle cure. No medicinal fix. It just ends with them being sick together.

It should be noted that Anna Dewdney, Llama Llama’s storied author, died of brain cancer a few years after this came out. She was fighting during this book and it shows. There’s a reality here that is hard to replicate or put into words. But she does: “Llama llama red pajama, sick and bored, at home with mama.”

It’s hard to explain this to a kid. A book like Llama Llama really helps. I read it to my kid and remind him that everyone in the world gets sick all the time and most people get better. Most scary things start with boogers and boogers are funny but they can carry bacteria to your sinuses or lungs and that isn’t. It’s a reach for my toddler, but he gets that we trust doctors and medical professionals (sound it out with me: ep-i-deem-ee-aw-low-jist) not because shots don’t hurt but because they help us avoid a place we don’t want to go, the liminal space of illness.

Illness is not a horror and (sorry, Mr. President) no one vaccine is a panacea. Illness is a place we spend time — the less time the better. The better kids understand that place, the more empowered they feel avoiding it or coping when their parents fall ill. The point isn’t that it’s all going to be okay, but rather that it sometimes won’t and then, hopefully, it will get better.

It’s all mostly boring. But we’ll get through

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