When Liz McChesney was director of citywide children’s services at the Chicago Public Library, she would often ask her friend Judy Schiffman for help selecting books to carry children through periods of grief and trauma.
Schiffman is director of Chicago’s Barr Harris Children’s Grief Center, and a firm believer in the power of children seeing themselves in the pages of books — especially during painful times. Books, she says, can help kids feel less alone when they’re grieving a loss and give them words for their complicated tangle of feelings.
McChesney retired from her library job at the end of 2019 to work with The Clinton Foundation establishing literacy nooks inside laundromats. But shortly after the coronavirus pandemic struck last spring, she found herself on the receiving end of a call from Schiffman.
“This pandemic is all about loss and grief,” Schiffman said. “And so who else would I go to besides Liz to talk about books that would help children cope better?”
McChesney told Schiffman she wasn’t yet aware of a children’s book specifically about living through the pandemic.
“Judy said, ‘Well, I think we have to write it,’” McChesney said.
They contacted Chicago artist Steve Musgrave, whose delightful work graces many of the city’s public spaces, to see if he’d sign on as the illustrator. Musgrave agreed, and the three of them spent the next few months meeting over Zoom and discussing story and characters and detail and kids’ feelings.
The result is “Keke’s Super-Strong Double Hugs,” a book about a girl named Keke, her big brother, Noah, their mom and dad and their dog, Clyde.
(Keke is named after singer and actor Keke Palmer, who was active in last summer’s protests for racial justice.)
Keke’s family’s fro-yo outings and skateboard park shenanigans and pingpong games with Grandma at her retirement home come abruptly to a halt when a virus makes it risky to interact with too many people outside their immediate household.
“The pandemic stays and stays,” Keke says. “Some days I feel angry and I don’t know why. The pandemic is all we do.”
Keke has questions about the virus. She learns how to keep herself safe from it. She finds ways to stay entertained and connected to loved ones.
“We wanted a way to reassure children in a scary time,” McChesney said. “And also support families to be able to access a deeper understanding of how children are acting.”
Musgrave filled the book with details that reflect pandemic life, and will be fun for kids to pick up on as they read — Keke’s artwork, for example, which covers more and more of her apartment walls as the story progresses.
“One thing I feel like I kind of contributed was giving Keke and Clyde a real connection,” Musgrave said. “That’s based on my own experience with my dog during the pandemic, and just really feeling a bond with her and a normalcy from her. I tried to make the dog in every scene close to Keke or her brother.”
At the end of the book, the authors added a guide for talking to children about the pandemic. (”Give your children time to ask their questions. Reassure children that you will always answer their questions.”) They also included a list of parent resources, including links to news stories, podcasts and even a “Sesame Street” episode that help kids make sense of COVID-19 and its effect on our lives.
The DuPage Children’s Museum hosted McChesney for a virtual reading on Monday, and she said she’s in talks with the Chicago Children’s Museum to schedule a reading there as well. Proceeds from the book go to the Lauri S. Bauer Foundation for Sudden Loss, a foundation that helps children who have experienced a sudden death.
One thing I kept thinking as I read the book was how my kids, when they were young enough for picture books, would glom onto a favorite and make a beeline for it over and over and over, whenever it was time to sit down and read.
How wonderful, I think, to have this sweet, hopeful story for kids to turn to as many times as they want, when so much of life is inconsistent and unpredictable.
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