Children’s book creator LeUyen Pham remembers the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as a time of contrasts and confusion.
With her husband and kids at home, the house was suddenly loud all the time, while Los Angeles was abnormally quiet. Unanswerable questions swirled everywhere. “We were all walking around in a weird fog,” said Pham. “We were all nervous. We were all scared. Was it just the flu? Was it something bigger than the flu? Were we all going to die? We just didn’t know.”
So Pham did what authors do. She wrote.
At first she wrote without a plan, observing what she saw in her neighborhood and in the world. Soon, a pattern emerged. A juxtaposition between what was happening outside and inside, both literally and figuratively. It was almost like a nursery rhyme, said Pham, who has illustrated more than 100 books and was a 2020 Caldecott honoree.
Within months, she turned her jotted-down ideas into the text and art for Outside, Inside, a picture book published in January. The book never says words like “coronavirus” or “quarantine,” yet through digitally illustrated scenes of families, workers and neighborhoods pulled from real life in 2020, it’s a literary time capsule that can help kids and adults reflect on their experiences during the pandemic.
That’s something sorely needed right now, according Kass Minor, a former special education teacher who works with districts around the country to improve teaching and learning. Minor said she worries that the ongoing task of keeping people safe from COVID-19 has edged out space for meaningful conversations about the past year.
“I’m worried because I feel like we are teaching children to hold it in and to ignore what happened,” Minor said. “500,000 people died. That’s real, and we’ve got to talk about it.”
To help teachers open those conversations, Minor teamed up with Pham to create a “teaching bundle” with a read-aloud guide and hands-on activities to accompany Outside, Inside. The pair also will discuss the picture book and how to connect it to curriculum during a webinar hosted by the Author Village.
Outside, Inside does not follow one main character but weaves a collective narrative of a period when everyone all over the world “just went inside, shut their doors, and waited.” At the same time, it reflects how differently people experienced the pandemic based on their jobs, locations and other circumstances. Its pages present a mosaic of towns, windows, kitchen and homes through which a reader can glimpse these varied lives.
One spread, for example, shows a family baking bread, another family stressing over bills, a pair of smiling children playing a board game, and another a child looking bored in a virtual class. The book also acknowledges that not everyone got to stay home through an outside scene of frontline and essential workers in action and an indoor scene full of hospital rooms.
In Minor’s teaching bundle, educators can find prompts for “think aloud” and “turn and talk” moments to use with specific pages. The prompts encourage children to share memories from quarantine through writing, drawing and talking.
After the read aloud, teachers can build on the discussion by asking students to create an Outside, Inside house or a time capsule. Minor said that these multimodal activities kids invite “to think of themselves as illustrators and writers and creators of their own story.” With the Outside, Inside house, children engage with different perspectives by seeing two views of a home and making a window to link them. In the time capsule project, students photograph memorabilia from the past year and discuss themes among items chosen by their peers.
Minor’s guide connects both activities to specific Common Core literacy standards related to developing and organizing ideas, writing sequences and participating in collaborative conversations.
Pham has seen those skills on display during virtual school visits for Outside, Inside. She said her recent classroom interactions have differed from when she toured for previous books. Before, children often wanted to see her illustration skills in action. Now, “it’s not about what can I draw, it’s about what can you remember?” she said. “Somehow that empowers the kids to turn it onto themselves.”
Grown-ups’ reactions have surprised Pham, too. She said teachers, who have faced their own host of challenges during the pandemic, tear up while reading more often than children. And she’s heard from parents and educators whose children or students have hooked onto particular images that connected to their lives. Those adults have expressed gratitude that the book opened a dialogue when they didn’t know how to.
Outside, Inside ends on a hopeful note, with the arrival of spring, families embracing and children playing outdoors. Though we can’t write “The End” on the pandemic just yet, Pham and Minor hope that the picture book and accompanying lesson plans can be part of the healing process.