On March 17, Sara Haynes, the head teacher at the Arnhem Wharf Primary School in London, watched her students cry as they told her their fears of dying from the new coronavirus. At the same time, students' parents were grappling with how best to explain what the virus was and how children could protect themselves, so Haynes called her best friend Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow, a U.K.-based children’s publisher. Less than three weeks later, their conversation resulted in the release of Coronavirus, a free picture e-book that has been downloaded more than 640,000 times in the U.K. since its release on April 6.
Written by Elizabeth Jenner, Wilson, and Nia Roberts, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, illustrator of The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, the book guides young readers through the social and medical aspects of what the virus is, how it spreads, and how to take steps to reduce their exposure.
“We wanted this to get into the hands of every child and family that might find it useful, and free is absolutely the best way to do this,” Wilson said. “It was a way of using our particular expertise and experience to do a useful thing. It was a small gift that we could give, so we gave it.”
Wilson’s first step in creating the book was to e-mail Scheffler, who she has worked with on a number of projects over the years. “Should we make a picture book, right now?” she asked him. “It would be digital and free and would help to explain the coronavirus to young children? Children and families are anxious. It might help. Call if you are interested.”
A few hours later, Scheffler called back and agreed to do the illustrations for the book. Wilson then turned her attention to finding experts to review the content she was drafting with Jenner and Roberts. Having seen Graham Medley, an infectious disease specialist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the BBC, she wrote him to ask if he would consider vetting the book for accuracy.
Within a matter of days, Wilson had a team in place, rounded out by Haynes, two additional educators, and a child psychologist from the National Health Service, all of whom reviewed the text.
To spread the word, Nosy Crow turned to social media. “We’ve won awards for digital marketing and we were able to use the audiences we had to start spreading the word,” Wilson said. The e-book immediately found a large readership; Wilson and Scheffler have done numerous radio and television appearances to promote the title. Late this week, the publisher announced that Downton Abbey actor Hugh Bonneville has recorded an audiobook of the U.K. edition at no charge.
While Wilson had no plans to sell or print editions of the book, she wanted to ensure that it reached as many readers as possible with as much accuracy for the health services and cultural norms where they live. As a result, Nosy Crow allowed for subrights by publishers in other countries. The book is currently available in 39 languages and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked for permission to create an audio edition in Rohingya.
In the United States, the book is being made available by Candlewick Press and was released for download on April 14. It is a natural partnership for the two presses; Candlewick has been a publishing partner for Nosy Crow’s illustrated books since 2011, including Scheffler’s Pip and Posy.
“We’ve always loved Axel Scheffler’s child-friendly approach,” said executive editor Kate Fletcher. “Combined with the clear, approachable, fact-based text, and Professor Medley’s imprimatur, we felt this was the perfect package at just the right moment.”
Candlewick updated the text carefully, removing references to the U.K.’s National Health Service, and altering language for an American audience. Like all publishing partners for the book, Candlewick has agreed to make the book available for free and is contributing to spreading the word about it by reaching out to nonprofit partners.
For Wilson, it has been a chance to put the might of children’s publishing toward an essential purpose, making a confusing world a bit clearer for children. “It will be read by millions of people,” she said. “We just hope it offers a mix of information and reassurance at a time when children need both of those things.”