April 17, 2021 10:10:40 am
With everything that is going on in the world, children need to be told how they can stay safe and brave the pandemic. But for that, they will first need to understand the magnitude of the situation in a way that does not overwhelm them. While there is a massive influx of information, there is hardly anything out there which is tailored to the sensibilities of a child.
And this is what prompted Rea Malhotra Mukhtyar to work on her book ‘Germ Academy‘. Published by Harper Collins, the book is set in an unnamed, unidentified dirty corner of the world, where there exists an academy for germs.
In it, Covie is one of the “baddest of the baddies”. “Trained by evil masterminds, he won’t stop causing havoc until he’s the ‘World’s Best Infection’ and nothing is coming in his way… Or so he thinks,” the author tells Express Parenting over an email interaction.
“Then the ‘Soap Squad’ enters. This bottled brigade takes pride in keeping the planet squeaky clean, even if it means squashing a few hopes and dreams along the way. What happens when their two worlds collide is what makes the rest of this timely story, which is a little bit creepy, a little bit bubbly, and a whole lot of fun!”
Mukhtyar shares how she conceptualised this story, why she thinks it is important that kids read about the pandemic, and the important role they can play in educating the adults around them.
Excerpts from the interview:
When did you conceptualise this story, and why did you think it was important?
In the thick of the first lockdown, I got thinking about how children might be making sense of this strange, new world. Given that I am a teacher at the Bombay International School, Mumbai, I was particularly keen to make something that helped adults explain the pandemic to children in their lives. Inspired by a certain pesky virus that just doesn’t seem to go, I wrote The Germ Academy mid-May of 2020, and was then stuck with lots of words, aching to be brought to life.
I reached out on social media, looking for an illustrator to collaborate with, and was put in touch with Shahena [Zaveri] through mutual friends. Together in vision — but physically apart — we conceptualised the characters, created a storyboard, and sent our little lockdown baby to various publishing houses. Despite living down the road from each other, and sharing many friends, we had never met face-to-face, and did not do so until after the book was complete, in December 2020!
Why do you think it is important for children to understand what is going on around the world in an age-appropriate way?
Children have always been driven by curiosity to discover answers to their many questions by exploring the outside world. Having been stuck at home, and largely behind screens for the last year, they have been robbed of the pleasures that nature, school, and socialising allows them to experience.
If they are explained things in an age-appropriate way, they will be more likely to willingly co-operate, be aware of the risks that Covid poses to everyone (but particularly, elder members of the family), and most importantly, it will help to allay any fear that a lack of understanding causes.
What message do you intend to convey through this storybook?
We hope the story gives our young readers hope, and helps spread the underlying message that it’s all in our control to keep this disease, and any of its kind at bay, with a little help from our cleanliness comrades.
Tell us about the illustrations in the book.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted the book to have a bit of edge, and appeal to both adults and children. Big fans of watercolours’ whimsical nature, we immediately decided to create a vibrant world of germs — some a humorous interpretation of their name (chickenpox), whilst others were influenced by the germ’s actual genetic make-up (flu).
Everything has been painstakingly hand-drawn by Shahena, who was delighted to experiment until we were able to accurately represent our imagination.
Each page has, hidden within it, little quirky details that are waiting to be found!
Although a topical and timely story, many people have stopped taking the pandemic seriously — what is your message to them?
We can’t blame people for getting ants in their pants recently, but it’s caused a sudden and shocking rise in cases. This complacency and lack of adherence to rules and regulations has brought us back to square 1, if not made the situation worse than it has ever been before. COVID-19 is still a very real fear, and needs to be treated as such — stay home, stay safe! Read our book! Indoors!
For which age-group is the book written?
From pop-culture references and scientific formulae to cleanliness tips and silly sounds, the book has something for everybody! If we absolutely had to mention a target audience, then we would say 3-8 years of age, and their very-clever parents.
Do you think when children begin to understand a crisis — especially the current health crisis — they can play a role in educating adults around them?
Yes, absolutely! It’s very hard to say no to wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked, small humans, especially when they’re saying what you know to be true. Children are the future, and we believe, the most effective propagators of change. We hope that they are the guiding light for adults who, fatigued by the mundanity of this pandemic, might give in to the little devil on their shoulder.
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