With nothing but time since March, the homebound have taken up things varied as gardening, quilt-making and bread baking during the pandemic. Sarah Legare and her husband Frank Pichel went a different route, choosing to write a children’s book about quarantining.
Legare, a public-health specialist, and Pichel, a commercial animator, made the transition to author and illustrator when Emory University’s Global Health Institute held a COVID-19 children’s book-writing competition in the spring. Because Legare earned a master’s degree in public health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, she heard about the event when a grad school classmate shared the link on social media, albeit only a week before the deadline.
“So it was within a subject and network where I have experience, plus my husband Frank is a creative director and animator,” she explains. “We had some extra time on our hands and it was the perfect opportunity for us to use our skills.” So they entered.
Spoiler alert: They did not win. But Ember Publishing House reached out after it was over to ask if they wanted to publish the story anyway and they did. The result is “Staying Home with Quarantine Cat,” a book written to help explain what’s going on with the pandemic to 4- to 8-year-old children.
A proponent of being honest with kids and communicating the reason why things are happening – even if it’s complicated, scary or hard to understand – Legare points to all the incorrect or unverified information in the world today. “So having a resource that can help guide learning and conversations is helpful,” she says. “Hopefully this book falls into that category.”
One of the main things she’s learned working in public health is to refer to the experts, and Legare says that when it comes to COVID-19, that means the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She used its guidance to help form the message in the book. Her background is in infectious disease and social determinants of health, so there are some common themes of infection prevention and mental health that carry throughout.
The couple’s first goal was to create a helpful tool and beyond that, it wanted “Staying Home with Quarantine Cat” to be fun, as well as something that both adults and kids could enjoy. “Frank’s illustrations bring a lot of light-heartedness to the story,” she says. “He’s great at integrating funny little details.”
Because Pichel is a commercial animator who works in small teams to deal directly with clients, he’s used to doing a lot of writing, concepting and character design before animating.
“The Quarantine Cat book was similar to most of my projects, just for print instead of animation,” he says. “And for good, instead of commerce!”
Long a fan of the rhyming narrative of “Rupert Bear,” a decades-long series of English children’s books about a bear and his friends’ adventures, Pichel suggested they utilize that style.
“I did some experimenting before settling on the illustration style, deciding on quick pencil sketches over strong graphic color blocks,” he says. They both wrote some of the rhymes, but they found that if Legare wrote the lines and Pichel then whittled them down, it produced the most appealing phrasing.
Making the story memorable so it would stand out was another primary goal.
“I want kids to love the texture and the oddity of it as much as I loved the ancient ‘Rupert’ books I found in my parents’ house,” Pichel says. “We’re hoping that the message will cling better if it’s memorable.”
When Legare originally sketched out the story, it was with humans, but when she presented it to Pichel, he suggested featuring a cat family, which she found infinitely cuter and his cat Zipper became the unofficial model.
“I think a cat is relatable for kids and allowed us to tell the story without assigning gender or race,” she says. “Hopefully all kinds of kids can see themselves in the main character, who we informally call Q Cat.” Currently, the book is available online at Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble and Walmart, but plans are in the works to carry it at local bookstores.
One member of the publishing team was a medical student who suggested offering the book as a resource for clinicians to help educate their patients. Beyond that, they hope the book is something that families can refer to now and in the future.
“While the book does talk about the current recommendations for COVID-19, it doesn’t mention the disease explicitly,” Legare says. “Of course, we hope that we never have to face another pandemic like this one, but it’s good to be prepared.”