Childhood Heroes: storytelling survival strategies and role models of resilience to COVID-19
Funded by a British Academy COVID-19 Special Research Grant (COV19\201444), this project started on 3 August 2020
About this project
The project focuses on storytelling – past and present – and aims to mitigate the immediate and longer-term educational, social and mental health impacts of COVID-19, as well as the marginalisation of children’s voices.
There are two interlinked strands to the project: the first explores historical children’s interaction with classical role-models in early magazines which forged new communities through distanced learning. The second focuses on creative responses to heroic narratives today in light of COVID-19. Researching archival and contemporary material together enables us to understand shifting, but enduring, notions of both heroism and childhood.
In collaboration with Storytime Magazine and underpinned by historical research, we are producing a series of print and digital resources enabling children to make reassuring transtemporal connections with models of survival (see below or download here). These will also be used as prompts to encourage children’s creative responses as a way of facilitating emotional processing.
Via a series of blog posts (above), we will also be documenting some of the many contemporary narratives and resources which address COVID-19, focusing on narratives of heroism.
Principal Investigator: Rachel Bryant Davies
Consulting collaborator: Kristin Hadfield
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
We Are Heroes
We are delighted to be collaborating with Storytime magazine to produce resources aimed at children from 3-9 years old. 'We Are Heroes' is a series of sixe special issues. Each edition contains carefully chosen stories that have parallels to experiences of lockdown that children could be facing – such as staying at home or protecting yourself – with additional activities to offer children a creative way of processing the current situation they find themselves in.
Storytime will be publishing a new edition of 'We Are Heroes' for 6 months from October 2020 through to March 2021: they are free for anybody to download, read and share.
Childhood heroes: stories for children about COVID-19 in the UK and beyond
About this blog: stories for children about COVID-19 in the UK and beyond
A growing number of children’s books, and other texts for children, are being produced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They aim to inform and educate children about COVID-19 and/or help with its social and emotional impacts using storytelling.
With the first examples appearing in March 2020, these texts are being created rapidly, and reacting and evolving to advice and policy. Often circulated online for free, sometimes self-published and sometimes translated and adapted multiple times, they are highly ephemeral. As such, they offer snapshots of particular moments in a quickly evolving situation and valuable insights into contemporary ideas about childhood.
This blog, aimed at academics, researchers, practitioners and other interested parties, draws out some of the key issues and themes emerging from COVID-19 children’s literature for future research, including individual and collective heroism, time and temporality and storytelling.
The majority of the texts featured on this blog have been found through the New York City School Library System’s catalogue of COVID-19 Children’s eBooks available on their website to whom we are very grateful.
This blog is run by Dr Lucie Glasheen. If you would like to get in touch please email email@example.com
September 2020: Ordinary Heroes and Everyday Superheroes
Ordinary heroism, or the ‘everyday superhero’, became a popular trope during lockdown in the UK. The concept of the everyday hero, often applied to NHS workers, is a nebulous one. This allows it to be expanded, so it can sometimes include waste collectors, cleaners, carers, delivery drivers, supermarket workers, and other ‘key workers’. It can also be applied to the population in general.
This idea of ordinary heroism can be seen in the Scottish anthology Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children Living in Lockdown. Stay at Home! was published as a free e-book by the small independent publisher Cranachan in May 2020 and contains a section called ‘Everyday Super Heroes’.
Out of the seven stories and poems in this section, three explicitly mention heroes/superheroes. In all three instances, the ‘superhero’ in question is a woman – the mum or step-mum of the first person narrator.
Figure 1: Darren Gate in Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children Living in Lockdown ed. by Joan Haig, Cranachan, 2020, p. 48. Reproduced by kind permission of Darren Gate and Cranachan Publishing.
In Rachel Plummer’s poem ‘Superhero’, the narrator initially describes the ways in which her mum, who ‘doesn’t wear a lycra suit/ or hold a ray gun primed to shoot’, does not meet the typical characteristics associated with a superhero (p. 49). Instead, the protagonist’s mum is a supermarket worker. ‘Super’ is repeated three times in the poem: ‘superhero’, ‘supermarket’ and ‘super empty-shelf-restacker’. This helps to link the ‘ordinary’ and ‘heroic’ roles together, and the poem is emphatic about the importance of supermarket work. It ends by describing the narrator’s mum as ‘the hero, hunger-mender,/ key worker and smile-defender’.
In Yasmin Hanif’s ‘Daisy’s Mum’, the mum in question is similarly a ‘key worker’. Her job is not defined but it involves putting on an ‘outfit, pristine and clean’ to ‘help those unwell’ and she works long hours (p. 56).
In Ross Sayer’s ‘The Game’, in contrast, it appears to be the narrator’s stepmum’s role within the home that is heroic. The narrator’s step-mum is described as ‘the real superhero’ in the very last line of the short story. It is implied that this is because she ‘works on her laptop a lot and has to make dinner and change my little brother’s nappies and do the shopping and take some of the shopping to my gran and do the washing and sort basically everything in the flat’ (p. 55).
In all three texts, but especially in Plummer’s and Sayer’s, there is a juxtaposition between the everyday nature of the tasks being described, both unremarkable and regularly repeated, and their super-heroic nature or impact in light of the pandemic. The texts, and the context that they evoke, elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary.
It is also notable that these heroes are women and are maternal. Heroism, and particular superheroism, has often traditionally been associated with stereotypically masculine attributes such as courage, bravery, endurance and action. However, these texts describe typically feminised activity as heroic. Hanif’s poem emphasises the feminine qualities of Daisy’s mum, describing her as ‘[buzzing] away like a bee’, ‘leaving… her sweet honey smell’ that ‘comforts me’ and with ‘a tired smile’ praising ‘voices that heal’ (p. 55).
Meanwhile, in Sayer’s story the step-mum’s heroism comes from seemingly single-handedly balancing child care and housework with her unspecified employment (an LSE study shows that women ‘are more likely to be taking on extra housework and childcare’ during the pandemic than men). In doing so, ‘Superhero’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Daisy’s Mum’ promote the idea that such tasks and attributes should be valued.
There has, however, been growing criticism about the use of ‘hero’ to describe NHS workers in particular. Esther Murray, Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology at Queen Mary, argues against using heroic tropes for healthcare workers ‘because it makes it look as if people signed up to die, as a hero does, when they didn’t’, as well as making it harder for staff to express how they feel. Jennifer Mathers and Veronica Kitchen have similarly said that heroic narratives suggest that ‘the current situation was inevitable’, allowing criticism of the government’s actions to be deflected, and it has been pointed out that government rhetoric has not necessarily matched their spending or migration policies. Nonetheless, Mathers and Kitchen’s research also shows the value in heroic narratives, arguing that ‘creating and sharing stories about heroes is important for building and maintaining communities’.
The trope of the ‘ordinary hero’ has been used during the twentieth century to advance a range of, sometimes conflicting, political positions. At the moment, the COVID-19 ‘ordinary hero’ narrative, has the potential to either support a return to the pre-COVID status quo or to contribute to a revaluing of care roles. ‘Superhero’, ‘Daisy’s Mum’ and ‘The Game’, and the relationship between all three in the anthology, leave either interpretation open to the reader.
‘Superhero’ by Rachel Plummer, ‘The Game’ by Ross Sayers and ‘Daisy’s Mum’ by Yasmin Hanif in Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children Living in Lockdown ed. by Joan Haig, illus. by Darren Gate, Cranachan, 2020.
Image 2: Haig, Stay at Home!, cover. Reproduced by kind permission of Darren Gate and Cranachan Publishing.
 The other remaining four texts centre on: a helpful boy called Fergus; a male neighbour associated or identified with Robin Hood; Dot and her Grandmother ‘clapping for’ a gender neutral group of doctors and nurses; and a gender neutral list of ‘farmers and food workers’ and ‘doctors, nurses, cleaners and all angels in disguise’.
 There is an established juxtaposition between the ordinary and extraordinary in some superhero characters such as Superman, but in these texts the actions as well as the character move from one to the other.
October 2020: Protection
The first issue of the project’s mini magazine We Are Heroes, produced in collaboration with Storytime magazine, was sent out to selected school subscribers in October. It is now available for free download. As the theme of this first edition is Protecting Yourself and Others, it seemed appropriate for this blog entry to focus on Protection.
While what is considered heroic changes across time and space, a commonly defining characteristic is that of protecting others: from rescuing individuals to defending a community.
The latest UK government information film repeatedly invokes the idea of taking actions to protect others, moving between personal/ proximate and wider conceptions: ‘I wash my hands to protect my family’, ‘I wear a mask to protect my mates’, ‘I wear a mask to protect strangers’, ‘I make space to protect you’. The UK government’s public health messaging has been widely criticised. The effectiveness of this particular campaign, remains to be seen, but it does appear to encourage a sense of community and of active responsibility (if not necessarily heroism) absent from some of the other messages.
So where do children fit into protection narratives? The idea that children need protecting is central to our ideas about what it means to be a child. Children’s studies has shown that children are often constructed as either posing a risk or being at risk (sometimes both at the same time, see Hörschelmann and van Blerk 2012) and how this intersects with class, race, age and space. The protection of children has driven much child legislation. Many academics and practitioners argue that child protectionist narratives have led to the increasing restriction of children’s lives and the undermining of children’s abilities and rights.
Children appear to be far less at risk from COVID-19 than adults and so the protection of children has not become a key narrative. Yet, children, particularly teenagers, and young people have sometimes been cast as themselves a risk or a threat (of spreading the disease), recalling earlier narratives, for instance around children and traffic (which suggested both that children caused traffic accidents and that they were vulnerable to them, Glasheen 2020).
In this binary construction of children as of risk/ at risk, there appears to be little room for imagining children taking on the heroic role of protecting others from COVID-19. Indeed, although the government’s film includes young people, children are completely absent.
However, children’s literature has a long tradition of casting children in heroic or semi-heroic roles, and so in new COVID-19 children’s books we might expect to see children as protectors.
One example of a COVID-19 children’s book which casts children as actively protecting themselves and others against the virus is the Canadian Skownan First Nation picturebook, Nuttah and Kitchi (2020).
Written by Sandra Samatte and illustrated by Julian Grafenauer, Nuttah and Kitchi is a story and journal activity book that can be read for free on flipsnack or downloaded as a pdf via public libraries’ websites. The book is mainly aimed at educating and informing about COVID-19 public health measures, using the framing device of a family living in Skownan First Nation, in Canada, working on ‘Project: Protect Our People’. This is one of a number of children’s books written by Samatte, who works at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre and lives in Skownan First Nation, including another book featuring the same characters.
The story gives each family member, including four children, Mom, Dad, Grandmother and dog, responsibility for one part of the project. They introduce the reader to that section of information, including ‘Keeping Yourself and Others Healthy and Safe’, ‘Practice Wellness in Your Home’, and ‘Protect Our People’.
This framing suggests that each family member, including children, has an important role to play in protecting those around them. This role is not confined to within the family as the book makes explicit, and transtemporal, links between the family and wider community: the importance of protecting ‘our Elders’ is emphasised as ‘They are our Knowledge Keepers. They have the wisdom we need for now and future generations’. The community is presented as intergenerational (and interspecies). Thus children are presented as neither uniquely vulnerable/risky nor uniquely heroic but able to share expertise and take collective responsibility.
There is far more which could be said about this text and the issues it raises in relation to other COVID-related children’s books, which I hope will picked up here or elsewhere. How the book’s construction of protection relates to Skownan and other First Nations’, as well as the Canadian government’s, narratives of heroism and COVID-19 remains, as far as I am aware, to be explored. When read from the UK, the text provides a vision of how children could be encompassed in protective public health messaging, while also raising important questions about who is included or excluded when ideas of community are invoked.
 At least not from the disease itself. Increasingly there has been focus on the need to protect children from the effects of the pandemic, such as debates about extending the provision of free school meals.
November 2020: Stay Home
One of the most tangible impacts of the pandemic is the way it has restricted us spatially. In April and May 2020 many countries entered into periods of lockdown. The exact nature of restrictions varied, but there was a collective call to ‘stay at home’. As we saw in September’s blog post a number of children’s books share this message of ‘staying at home’ while also responding to the emotional effect that this may have on children.
One such book is Bird Stays Home by Linda Cartolano and Joanne Raptis, self-published in April 2020 in the US. Bird Stays Home tells the story of a young bird who is told by his ‘Papa Robin’ that they will ‘have to stay home’ so ‘they can stay safe and help other birds stay safe’. It is available as a paperback or ebook for sale on Amazon and as a free YouTube video, in which the book’s pages are displayed and read aloud.
The main way in which this narrative deals with spatial restrictions and their impact is through its use of time. The impacts of the pandemic on time, while less obvious than on space, are important. Psychologist Philip Gale’s recent research suggests that American’s perception of time significantly changed. Anthropologist Felix Ringel states that crises such as COVID-19 cause ‘a feeling of being stuck in the present, combined with the inability to plan ahead’. This, he posits, leads to people ‘tricking time’ by ‘constructing new rhythms and temporal structures’.
Bird Stays Home uses time in three key ways, drawing on tropes of children’s picture books as well as ideas about mental health and wellbeing, in order to facilitate the safe exploration and contextualisation of children’s emotional reactions.
Papa Robin repeatedly tells Bird that they ‘will get through it one day at a time’. In doing so, the book echoes wellbeing advice, including that of the UK government to ‘focus on the present’, and may help the pandemic seem less overwhelming. However, it may also add to the feeling of being unable to look ahead that Ringel discusses.
This phrase is an example of repetition, which is another way in which the book uses time. Repetition of words or phrases is commonly used in young children’s books. It can help teach children to read and new vocabulary, and works well when read aloud as children’s picture books usually are (as in the YouTube video of Bird Stays Home). This oral repetition is also likely to be emphasised through repetition of the act of reading or viewing the book. The repetition in Bird Stays Home (‘It was a …day’; ‘one day at a time’) provides a sense of familiarity. While the pandemic is new, the form in which it is being communicated about is similar to that of other books that children and adults will have read. Repetition can help create structure and routine or it can emphasise a sense of being stuck.
Thirdly, Bird Stays Home charts seven days of staying at home, with different emotions expressed each day. In doing so, the book similarly links a new and potentially distressing situation to the familiar structure of the week. On the final day Bird feels peaceful, invoking Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions (in which the seventh day of creation is a day of rest). This connects the new experiences of the pandemic to long histories of storytelling, perhaps particularly giving reassurance to the adults who would be buying this book or sharing it with their children.
The week is suggestive of the linear passage of time, and the book reinforces this through the sense that Bird is progressing or developing: by day five Bird is able to comfort himself through mimicking his father. On the other hand, the week also has a cyclical structure as at the end of the seventh day the week will begin again. This cyclical structure may provide its own sense of reassurance that unhappy or frightening emotions will pass. Alternatively, it may undermine any sense of progress or end to the pandemic restrictions.
Experiences of lockdown have been very different for different children (as this month’s We Are Heroes attempts to explore). Since April, when Bird Stays Home was published, we have seen a more uneven spatiality. Most children are less constrained than in April and May, but differences have widened. Both the UK and the US have had localised and changing variations in restrictions, adding to existing inequalities.
Children’s perceptions of time will also have changed as the pandemic has gone on. Some children may no longer remember a time ‘before’, while successive periods of relaxed and tightened restrictions will also change perceptions.
How can and should children’s literature respond? Ringel emphasises the need to move beyond the present to plan for the future. Do the temporal strategies that Bird Stays at Home uses allow for these experiences to be processed and a hopeful future to be imagined? Or does future COVID-19 literature need to come up with different temporal strategies?
December 2020: Christmas Time and Timeliness
I started writing this blog shortly after the UK government announced a last-minute change to Christmas plans. On the 25th November residents of England, Scotland and Wales were told that they could meet up and stay with two other households for five days over Christmas (those visiting households in Northern Ireland were allowed slightly longer for travel). However, on the 19th December a press conference announced that households could only meet up for one day, with the exception of newly designated Tier 4 areas where no mixing was allowed at all.
This announcement would have come too late for books such as Santa’s Christmas with a Mask by Divya Mohan and Hend Moharram, published on 8th November. A number of COVID-19 Christmas-themed books were released leading up to Christmas: my research has identified 18 published in the UK, USA and Ireland .
Unlike many of the books published near the beginning of the pandemic, the majority are for sale in paperback (£4.99 - £9.99) or e-book editions (£1.99 - £4.85).
As such, they are less immediately accessible to readers and researchers (including this one). This may paradoxically mean they are more available to future readers and researchers as free web copies and their hosting sites can easily be removed while physical and purchased e-copies have more permanence (although not necessarily – to date I have been unable to locate any library copies).
The texts all sit within a larger field of books (and films, games, toys etc.) whose release is timed to coincide with the lead-up to the festival. Christmas is important commercially and publications may be planned for months, or years, in advance to take advantage of this market. But Christmas-themed narratives also play an important role: building anticipation, creating atmosphere and maintaining, inventing and reproducing traditions.
COVID-Christmas texts share a focus on Christmas being different this year and the need to stay apart. For example, Covid Christmas Parade, written by eight-year old Milan Kumar (2020), opens with ‘Christmas was coming, but James was so sad. This year would be nothing like any he’d had’, James saying ‘Christmas is Christmas when we are together!’. In addressing worries about a changed Christmas, they aim to provide a sense of reassurance that fundamental aspects of the tradition will remain through making reference to familiar figures or tropes. In Kelley Donner’s (2020) A Very Corona Christmas, for instance, Santa wears a red and white PPE suit with a Santa hat. The texts therefore both emphasise the particular and ‘different’ time in which the reader and narrative is situated and the reoccurrence and continuity of elements that make Christmas a special time of year.
It is interesting to note that many of the texts are self-published. As the UK rule changes show, tying publications to a specific time and situation runs the risk of irrelevancy.
Such rapid changes to the rules and guidance governing our behaviour have become relatively common during the pandemic (including just before religious festivals). In the spring of 2020 both World Health Organisation and national government advice changed as scientific knowledge about the virus developed and as resource availability and political opinion shifted. This meant books could quickly become out of date. Texts such as Coronavirus: A Book about Covid-19 for Children (Jenner et al, 2020) were updated and re-released a few months after their initial publication, and others published under copyright licenses allowing adaptation.
COVID-Christmas texts are mostly concerned with the emotional and mental impacts of the pandemic rather than more traditional public health communication. They may, nonetheless, inadvertently encourage rule-breaking or unsafe behaviour or respond to a restriction or danger which no longer exists.
However, the use of self-publishing, and of online publishing of other COVID books, allows for greater risk-taking than a commercial publisher might be prepared for and faster reaction and adaptation. Magazines and periodicals can similarly respond relatively rapidly to changing circumstances. My own research into historical children’s comics uncovered the marking and reaffirmation of seasonal traditions (such as Guy Fawkes) as well as occasional responses to new events such as the depiction of a rent strike (Glasheen 2019) and of blackouts during World War Two . Further research would be needed to establish the significance of COVID-Christmas texts but while these kind of publications run the risk of being out of time, they also have the potential to be timely, responding to the particular experiences of children now.
 The place of publication was not always given.
January 2021: Individual Heroes and the Home
Staying at home and staying apart (socially distancing) can be acts of care for others in the context of the pandemic. They can, nonetheless, have an individualising and alienating effect.
‘Home’ has different meanings in different contexts and, as feminist scholars have pointed out, it is not a place of safety for everyone. Public health messaging has often imagined ‘home’ as an interior, closed and private space, at the same time that accelerated reliance on new forms of technology are exposing it as permeable (in ways which may be beneficial and dangerous to children).
As well as worries about the unequal ability to and impact of staying at home, and its impact on mental health and feelings of loneliness, there is concern about the erosion of ‘public life’, the community and the collective.
As this blog has explored, many COVID children’s books aim to help children understand and come to terms with the need to stay at home during periods of lockdown, including through portraying the child as a hero for doing so. However, this narrative can, unintentionally, isolate children from their immediate and wider communities, as can be seen in Even Superheroes Stay Home.
Even Superheroes Stay Home by Jamie McGaw (2020) is a rhyming picture book that can be downloaded as a pdf from his website. According to McGaw’s website, he originally wrote the book for his son, and the text written in second person encourages the reader to identify with the illustrated male protagonist. As with other similar texts, then, this book was written with a specific audience in mind but has since been shared and read worldwide (according to McGaw by over 22 countries).
The book focuses solely the need to stay at home, and the narrative attempts to help children come to terms with this through describing a series of activities that the child protagonist, and reader, can do. Similarly to Stay at Home (see September’s blog), Even Superheroes frames ordinary everyday activities as (super)heroic, including what might be considered leisure activities, such as playing with a sibling and reading, and what might be thought of as domestic chores, such as dog walking and washing up.
In Even Superheroes, the reader is told that playing, cleaning and ‘kind words and strong hugs’ are all heroic tasks that will ‘save the day’, and the book might therefore be seen as part of an important shift towards valuing domestic labour while seeing children as playing a significant role within the household and recognising the unique challenges that lockdown poses to them. While others have criticised the use of heroic metaphors for their military and religious overtones, implying sacrifice and silencing dissent, these aspects are absent from the book which uses the figure of the superhero.
However, as noted above, the construction of these activities as super-heroic suggests that there is an extraordinary aspect to them – perhaps because cleaning and caring come to have meaning temporarily in the face of a pandemic and will go back to being invisible afterwards, or in this instance perhaps because the involvement of children as contributing members of the household, taking responsibility for domestic tasks, is unusual. Elsewhere I have criticised the use of certificates to reward children for ‘staying at home, raising our spirits and making us smile’ as being reductive and separating children from the rest of the household. In a similar way, Even Superheroes singles out the child as having a specific but limited part to play. The (relatively narrow) list of activities restricts the possibilities open to the child reader and suggests that children have little responsibility within the family.
Even Superheroes also provides no context for the need to stay at home, we are simply told ‘when outside is grim…even superheroes stay home.’ This potentially increases the shelf-life of the book beyond the pandemic. Yet it also removes the significance of the child protagonist, and reader’s, actions. There is no sense of a world beyond the home and nuclear family, aside from a telephone call with ‘grandma’. Perhaps in order to avoid scaring the reader, this call is not presented as a way of keeping ‘grandma’ safe. Instead, the protagonist is implicitly praised for their patience in listening when she ‘wants to talk for a while’, with the image showing him in his superhero costume yawning. Aside from the problematic nature of this representation, this reduces child (super)heroism to a set of individual actions that help a few individual (and closely related) people, rather than the wider community.
Narratives have the potential to create imaginative and remote connections to others and to situate individual actions within a collective context. As Even Superheroes shows, however, narratives that focus on enduring restrictions can create the sense that children have limited power and add to an erosion of the public. The next blog will explore some examples of heroism which instead focus on the collective or community.