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A mom wrote a picture book to help her 3 kids make it through the quarantine. Here's her advice for talking to children about the coronavirus without scaring them.

Kelley Donner

  • How best to explain the coronavirus pandemic to young children is a problem for parents the world over.
  • Kelley Donner is a children's book author, illustrator, and mother of three young sons currently studying for a master's degree in illustration and book arts at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.
  • She's written a children's book that uses abstract shapes like lines and squares to illustrate what the pandemic is, without ever explicitly referring to it.
  • Speaking to Business Insider, Donner explained how parents should talk to their young children without overwhelming or frightening them.

If you're an adult, the perilous existence of the coronavirus in today's world goes without saying. 

But for parents of young children, explaining the mere existence of an invisible virus is a tricky task, let alone explaining how dangerous it is.

Kelley Donner knows this struggle all too well. Originally from Kansas, Donner now lives permanently in the UK, where she is quarantined with sons aged 6, 8, and 10 — and as any child in that precocious age range would, they're constantly unloading a barrage of coronavirus-related questions. 

For a child today, she told Business Insider, "everything's fine, and suddenly you've got all these rules coming in, and you see that older people like your parents are suddenly worried about things, which makes you nervous."

But unlike the millions of other parents around the world faced with the dilemma of explaining everything, Donner has a secret tool in her arsenal: She's studying for a master's degree in illustration and book arts at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.

Donner has used these skills to write and illustrate a book for children aged 2 to 6, called "The Day the Lines Changed," that uses abstract shapes like lines and squares to illustrate what the pandemic is, without ever explicitly referring to it.

The story begins with a green line, who lives with her family and goes to school as normal. Then some of the orange and purple lines in town begin to turn crooked, and everything changes drastically for the green line and her family.

'My 6-year-old worries more than any of them'

Using this story as an example, Donner explained how parents of young children should broach the topic of COVID-19 without going too close to the bone.

She said that, while young children may not worry about big concepts in normal circumstances, the virus has her youngest son on edge.

"My 6-year-old actually worries more than any of [my sons] about the virus, despite being the youngest. He was asking me just yesterday about whether his grandparents were going to be okay." 

The Day the Lines Changed page 1

"I say everything's going to be fine, but if they don't understand the concepts, it makes it difficult for them to understand why everything's the way it is."

In particular, children having time off school is something they may not grasp. Perhaps mindful of this, the BBC has just launched a home-learning scheme in which the likes of Sir David Attenborough and soccer star Sergio Aguero will teach British children subjects like biology and Spanish. 

For many children, this won't end the nagging sense of confusion. It's this issue, along with the tried-and-tested medium of storytelling, that explains Donner's decision to write her book.

"Kids are used to understanding things through stories," she explained. "They find them very helpful. My 6-year-old was immediately able to understand that the lines in the story that fall apart must represent older people [afflicted by the virus]."

"So you don't need to necessarily say the word 'coronavirus.'"

Donner maintained, though, that there's no need to explicitly tell your child that the story is about the coronavirus before you read it to them.

"I think it depends on the age of your child. Each parent has to take the story and relate it to their child. If your child is big enough to understand bigger concepts, then you can explain a little bit more.

Taking care of children's mental health

Donner, who has written several other children's books, went on to explain that parents can tailor how much they explain to the specific age or knowledge of their child.

"Maybe they understand the idea of a vaccine and how vaccines work, and you could elaborate on that, or maybe one of their relatives is actually suffering from the virus and you can make that link. But I've tried to keep it vague so that parents and teachers can choose how much they want to confront the issue and how much they want to leave it."

The UK government has issued advice for parents on supporting children's mental health during lockdown, noting that "children and young people may respond to stress in different ways."

As such, the relative vagueness of Donner's book appears apt. It's even been used to teach, she added.

"I've had a few teachers contact me about it and ask for permission to use the book," she said. "They can then choose for themselves how much they want to incorporate it into lessons."

In Donner's view, the book serves as a sort of amorphous tool, abstract enough to explain similar situations. This may prove useful if COVID-19 eventually becomes a seasonal phenomenon like flu, as some scientists have speculated it might.

"I think the book could work in the future to explain other pandemic-like situations. Children can take out of it what they need, in terms of understanding the particular situation at hand."

The book is currently available on Amazon as either a paperback or an e-book, with proceeds going toward charities focused on children's mental health. 

To date, over 16,000 people have died from coronavirus in the UK, while over 42,000 have died in the US. The UK remains under a state of nationwide lockdown, which has been in place since March 23.

SEE ALSO: The UK will release an app to track people reporting COVID-19 symptoms and to alert people they had contact with

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