The pandemic 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 series with their responses. Here, Lisa Graff, author of the picture book Wonderful You and more than 10 books for middle grade readers, shares her experience contracting and coping with Covid-19 and taking comfort in family and books.
On March 12, I flew to Chicago for a school visit that never happened. One hour after my plane touched down, the district decided the threat of Covid-19 was severe enough to close all schools, effective immediately. I turned around and flew home.
Five days later, my symptoms began.
My case of the virus (well, presumed case—tests were especially scarce back then) wasn’t nearly as awful as some, but it wasn’t pleasant. I’d picked up a swag bag of coronavirus favorites: cough, body aches, fatigue, elephant-on-the-chest pressure, chills, sweats, “brain fog,” and on and on. I spent days in bed, barely able to lift my head. Still, as many idiot authors are wont to do, I kept trying to work. After all, I had a novel to rewrite! And a picture book to launch! Not to mention two young children to take care of. My husband would come upstairs to bring me soup or ibuprofen, only to find me drooling on my notes. I finally abandoned my efforts altogether after I woke up one afternoon and read the Ultimate Solution I’d come up with for my novel’s biggest plot hole.
“Eat chicken salad!”
That’s what I’d scribbled in my notebook.
(Reader, I do not even like chicken salad.)
As it turned out, that was the last bit of writing I’d do for several months. My virus developed into pneumonia, and just when it seemed like I was turning a corner, I crashed harder than ever, my exhaustion and headaches gluing me to the bed for weeks at a time. My daughter took to drawing pictures of the “Sickness Woman.” (“The sickness woman has no energy so she just sleeps,” she told me, describing one drawing. “The three women come and give snail plasma to her.”) (I’ve been trying not to read too much into this.) (But has anyone looked into this snail plasma thing? Might be something there.)
I am, I have since discovered, one of the unfortunate “long-haulers”—often young, previously healthy patients with “mild” cases of Covid-19 who mysteriously never quite recover. I have good days and very, very bad ones, and I never know which will be which.
My family is adjusting the way families do—one day at a time, holding tight to what’s important, and letting go of what’s not. The kids’ bedtime ritual shifted to my bed instead of theirs (where there’s much more space to snuggle, anyway). And my husband and I were pleased to discover that even when our kids eat cut-up hot dogs for dinner, they go on living just fine. Friends and neighbors, too, have found incredibly touching and meaningful ways to help, even while socially distanced. Meals have been delivered to our door, prescriptions picked up from the pharmacy, jigsaw puzzles and chocolate sent from many states away. As so many families have discovered recently, a pandemic highlights both the resources you lack and those you never thought to reach for.
So last month, when my long-anticipated picture book, Wonderful You (illustrated by the incomparable Ramona Kaulitzki) arrived in the world, I was disappointed not to be able to throw a big launch party—but I knew I wouldn’t have made it through one anyway. Instead, I did what I suppose any long-hauler in my position would have: I wrote an email to 150 of my closest friends (subject line: “I have Covid! Buy my book!”). Then I slept for three hours.
Not exactly glamorous. But you know what? My book is exactly the same joyful, life-celebrating work of art it would’ve been if I’d toasted it with cake and champagne. And nothing beats the replies I got to that email, with photos of my friends’ kids, all across the country, enjoying the book. I’d take those snapshots over champagne any day. (Maybe not over cake, though. I really do love me some cake.)
Time and again, what’s gotten my family and me through these past difficult six months are books. Books I’ve read alone in the bath, while soaking in my Epsom salts. Books we’ve read together on the couch, inviting intense debates about the strengths and weaknesses of various superheroes. Books snuggled up in bed under the covers, when there was little energy for anything else. If I’ve done nothing else as a parent this year, at least I’ve taught my kids that, whatever the situation you find yourself in, books can help.
And sometimes, I need my kids to remind me of that too. A few months back, when I found myself overwhelmed to the point of sobs, I heard a soft scuffling from the hall. When I looked up, I spotted my son’s favorite shark book, slowly sliding itself under my door. Someone, it seemed, knew exactly what I needed.
And, Reader? It helped immensely.