More research goes into children’s books than you might think. Or at least it did for “The Big Thing.”
“We did a lot of interviews with 5-year-olds,” said Alexander Friedman, co-author of the book and founder of Jackson Hole Economics. “We probably did a dozen of them.”
“The Big Thing” is about the novel coronavirus. The main character, Bea, is a stand-in for any kid who is coping with the new reality of social distancing measures.
Friedman and co-author Angela Meng collaborated from Jackson and Los Angeles, respectively. Illustrator and designer Alvaro Gonzales gave the book its aesthetic character from his home in Montevideo, Uruguay. Chinese, Spanish, Italian, French and Portugese translators were hard at work on the text before the ink was even dry.
“If there’s anything that is truly transnational, it’s a pandemic,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t respect borders. A child is going to see a lot of the same issues wherever they live.”
The interviews that Friedman, Meng and Gonzales conducted with the youngsters actually came after the first draft of the book was done.
“We wrote the book and thought, ‘Yeah that’s pretty good,’” Friedman said. “Then we started showing it to friends who were parents and started getting feedback like, ‘I’m not quite sure that’s how my child sees it.’ We realized it was just two adults telling each other that they understood how children were thinking about it.”
In order to write a book that would help children cope with the crisis at hand, they had to talk to actual children. Even the title of the book came from those conversations.
“They couldn’t really wrap their arms around the concept of a pandemic or a virus in terms of any details, but they knew it was a ‘big thing.’”
The story is starkly realistic for a children’s book. Bea battles depression in isolation. She misses the smell of her grandparents, and she “worries that her favorite color, blue, now looks grey, like all the other colors.”
Friedman said it was important to the authors that the book delve into the negative effects of social distancing in order to make it relatable.
“If you have kids you know that everything is routines for them,” he said. “When their routine is turned upside down it’s really scary. It was important to us that kids felt understood and could relate.”
But, like any worthwhile youth fiction, “The Big Thing” takes a relatable conflict and resolves it with an uplifting outcome. For Bea the turning point is when her teacher, Mrs. Eva, teaches her about the concept of silver linings.
That is when Gonzales’ illustrations reach a crescendo. Superhero medical workers in swishing cape/scrubs zoom to the rescue, and Bea happily videoconferences with her grandparents as SARS-CoV-2 particles rain from the sky outside her window.
It is the illustrations that turn this highly relevant work into something that appeals to the imaginative brain of a kid.
The book is available to order in paperback or on Kindle, with all proceeds going toward UNICEF USA's COVID-19 relief fund. You can also download it for free at TheBigThing.org. ￼
This article has been updated to include current information about the recipient of proceeds from sales of "The Big Thing."