The nation has spent a lot of time trying to explain the pandemic to adults. What many facets of media have failed to do, however, is help children come to terms with the grief and loss caused by the pandemic. That is what the Institute of Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) and New Paltz Fine and Performing Arts students set out to change when they proposed a children’s book about dealing with pandemic stress.
The book, titled An Unusual Situation, centers around a hawk named Milo who has to deal with a stressful time and how his family copes with the experience. It is written to encourage kids to ask for emotional support from adults, instead of turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms. The 26 page story was written by Cassandre Surinon, and illustrated by David Folk. Max Zurlini was responsible for the design.
Although the children’s book is purely digital at the moment, there are plans to print the book and distribute it to groups such as Girl Scouts of America, American Red Cross, and All Hands and Hearts. According to Andrew O’Meara, graduate student assistant for the IDMH, the project began over a year ago after working with UNICEF USA on a video series starring actor, director and children’s TV host LeVar Burton. The series is called “Name it to Tame it” which strives to help children cope with the pandemic.
Burton helps children to reference the COVID-19 pandemic, validate the possible experiences and feelings they’re having as a result of it, practice brief childrens’ meditations and practice naming what they’re feeling and saying them out loud. Teaching young children to accept their feelings, share them with loved ones and make choices that will help them feel better is also the main goal of An Unusual Situation, making it a fitting collaboration.
“The book stemmed out of a want to create a written resource for children as many resources up until that point were directed towards parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults on how to support children, but not directed towards the children themselves,” O’Meara said.
Images in the book are colorful and bright, giving kids something enjoyable to look at even while dealing with stressful and unprecedented times. Something that O’Meara also emphasized was the idea that the mental health effects of the pandemic will be seen long after it becomes a thing of the past.
The storyline is not exclusive to COVID-19, but open to all general disaster situations globally.
“An Unusual Situation was purposefully written in a way that is not specifically about COVID-19 so that children and their families can project themselves onto the characters when they are going through an unusual situation,” explained O’Meara.“Be that a natural disaster, social unrest, or even personal and family struggles, we wanted this story to showcase how regardless of the specifics, Milo’s reactions to the situation he is experiencing are real and are worth discussing with those who care for him.”
In addition to an English version, the team has also translated the story into Spanish and will be distributing it to the Puerto Rico Department of Education as well as the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico to help students and children outside of the United States as well. They will be provided to physical Boys and Girls Club locations throughout the province and given to families that are having trouble coping.
The book is also free to download online in English, Spanish and French, removing accessibility barriers of cost and language.
The reason this pandemic might be hitting hard for children and adults alike is there seems to be no end date to look forward to, according to O’Meara. “Often parents can find it difficult to explain stressful things to their children, especially if parents don’t fully understand the situation themselves, so we wanted this book to be a way for children and parents to come together and talk about how stressful situations, like the pandemic, are affecting them,” he said.
The story has strong themes on display, but portrayed in a way that kids and adults alike can learn from. The importance of communication, the impact of vicarious trauma, the value of time spent with loved ones and the harms of children not being communicated with are all themes that the book subtely yet powerfully highlights.
The IDMH is also looking into the possibility of creating more books or media featuring Milo. For more information on An Unusual Situation or to download a copy, visit newpaltz.edu/idmh.
“As for the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, the mental health impact may certainly last well into the foreseeable future, even after returning to a ‘new normal,’” said O’Meara. “This may be especially so with children, who have been severely impacted with the closure of schools, thus meaning that resources directed specifically to children such as An Unusual Situation can really help them to cope with situations like these.”