The national shutdown has been a challenge for millions of Americans, and children’s authors and illustrators are no exception. We asked several of them to tell us their noteworthy quarantine stories, and we’re continuing a summer series with their responses. Here, Padma Venkatraman, author of Climbing the Stairs and The Bridge Home, among other books for young readers, describes moments of sorrow and joy during the pandemic and her conviction that “words have power.”
I’ve just completed a school visit when nations begin locking down. I call my 86-year-old mom in India, and end up having a fierce argument because she insists she has to attend a family function with millions of relatives. Her headstrong character inspired Climbing the Stairs, so by the time I finally convince her social distancing is necessary, I’ve used up all my cellular data. I wonder if I’ll ever see her alive again, knowing that if she passes away I may not even be able to attend the funeral. But I remind myself how much I have to be grateful for. We’re safe at home. We don’t have to worry about food or medicine, like the characters in The Bridge Home must. That night, my thoughts and prayers turn to people most at risk in India, America, and the rest of the world.
One unexpectedly warm afternoon, we decide to take a walk. “Take the Virus Home!” a driver yells at us. I want to tell him this country is home, and his cry makes me wonder how much harder it must be for my East-Asian American colleagues. When I hear news that confirms my fear that they’re facing increased levels of racism, I’m deeply saddened—but I can’t afford to be depressed, as I’m solo parenting a sharp young person who is sensitive and worried. I pour my energy into answering her questions about viruses and creating writing prompts for her (which I post on Twitter and YouTube, trying to do my little bit to help struggling teachers and parents). When she asks why the virus is called Covid-19, I explain and then we write a story about a character called Corona, set in the year 2019, which feels like an eon ago. When she asks how the virus spreads, we draw graphs and then write a poem about flat curves and curved flats.
My energy level goes unexpectedly up, and I assume I’m experiencing an adrenaline-induced high. I vomit words onto pages. I finish a stinky first draft of one middle grade novel and a young adult novel; even fill holes in Swiss-cheese drafts of abandoned adult novels. My drafts aren’t high-quality, but at least I’ll have a large quantity of clay to shape when things normalize. I hope.
Then I read about George Floyd’s death due to police brutality. For a whole day, I’m deprived of words with which to express my solidarity for my Black brothers and sisters who have to deal with so much more racism than I do. But I start writing again. Because if there’s one thing I’m certain of at this uncertain time, it’s that words have power. Words can break walls of fear and heal wounds gouged by loss. I keep hoping that as long as I live, I’ll be able to use my words to build bridges of understanding.