During the period at the end of 2019 when people still weren’t sure what was happening, COVID-19 quietly entered our lives before violently spreading to every corner of the world. What followed was panic, derision, and anxiety for a lot of people, while at the same time each country’s government and public health organizations started working together to put epidemic prevention measures in place.
Our lives completely changed. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to their own hygiene habits, and health-related information about disease prevention was repeated constantly across the news, adverts, and online videos. For example, there were stories about wearing a mask to protect yourself and others, or how to wash your hands to make sure they were clean, or what concentration of alcohol to use to disinfect your surroundings and so on. We also discovered that even though the necessary actions were very simple and easy, there were still a lot of people who fundamentally questioned why we were taking these measures. At the same time, there was also a lot of disinformation flooding the internet, with people spreading fake news on social media because they were worried that their friends and relatives would miss out on important information.
This was all happening in the adult world, and surely if we grown-ups couldn’t understand it, then children would have absolutely no idea what was going on. Those of us in book publishing quietly continued working but we also wondered whether there was anything we could do. We wanted children to know that countries all over the world were changing, and now everyone needed to follow compulsory regulations which were based on science and were there to protect everyone’s lives. We wanted children to know why we needed to wear masks and stay socially distanced from other people, why we needed to isolate if we caught the disease, and why we definitely needed to get vaccinated even if we felt uncomfortable. Furthermore, we also hoped that in this era of information overload, children would slowly develop the ability to interpret evidence.
We started by looking to see if any other countries had written suitable books that we could publish. We discovered a lot of single-issue books that introduced subjects such as what a virus was, what bacteria were; or other books that were basic introductions to understanding health or discussed the history of how humans have fought pandemics in the past. There weren’t any children’s titles we could find that were a comprehensive overview of the past, present, and future, so we decided to publish the book ourselves. We approached internationally renowned epidemiologist Chen Chien-Jen (who was also Vice President of Taiwan between 2016 and 2020) and the extremely popular children’s science writer Ami Hu, to collaborate on what we believed would be an excellent book for children to read.
In terms of division of labor, Chen Chien-Jen provided the knowledge, content, and framework, then Ami Hu “translated” it into a writing style that would be fun for children to read. Inevitably, there was a lot of back and forth between the authors and the editor, whether it was about drafting the outline or writing the text for each page: How can we present this point in a way that’s easier for children to understand? This concept is important but is it something children need to know at this stage? This point needs to be written in short, simple text but have we lost some of the accuracy? There were a lot of details that we needed to consider so we took the reader as the starting point and ensured that they would be able to fully absorb the information.
Of course, there was another vital contributor to the book: our exceptional illustrator, Hui. After the authors had agreed on the final text and sent it to the editor, it was then down to the editor to finalize the text and communicate the image brief and initial ideas to the illustrator, which is a moment that is seared into Hui’s brain! An illustrator needs to be like a preliminary reader and absorb the author’s text and before reading around on the topic to get a comprehensive understanding of it. Then, she needs to examine the image brief from the authors and the editor, consider the scope of the text and illustrations, check the accuracy of the scientific images, etc. Even within these various limitations, Hui used her creativity to draw beautiful, entertaining images that could be understood by adults and children alike. The authors’ warm words and the artist’s rich, varied illustrations come together to convey the ideas to reader in a way that is multi-faceted and three-dimensional.
Over the last ten years, there has been a lot of progress in children’s non-fiction both at home and abroad, but due to the pandemic, creativity seems to have stalled in the last couple of years which is something that the publishing industry needs to be aware of. I hope that as an industry we will all continue to strive and that I can be a small linchpin as we continue to provide children with high-quality non-fiction books.