Nosy Crow’s Free Digital Book for Kids About COVID-19 Takes Off

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

With Axel Scheffler’s illustrations and Hugh Bonneville’s narration, Nosy Crow’s ‘Coronavirus: A Book for Children’ has been downloaded more than 700,000 times.
Nosy Crow coronavirus children's book

Illustration by Axel Scheffler for ‘Coronavirus: A Book for Children,’ Nosy Crow

Editor’s note: At this writing, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center indicates that the United Kingdom, where Nosy Crow is based, has 125,856 confirmed cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 and 16,550 deaths. And France, where Gallimard Jeunesse is the publisher of the French edition of Nosy Crow’s new kids’ book, has 156,498 cases and  20,292 deaths. —Porter Anderson

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘The Fastest We’ve Ever Worked on a Book’
Since it was posted to Nosy Crow’s site on April 6, the free 15-page PDF Coronavirus: A Book for Children has been downloaded more than 713,000 times, according to the London-based children’s publisher.

Nosy Crow’s co-founding managing director Kate Wilson has written the book with Elizabeth Jenner, a children’s book author and Nosy Crow nonfiction editor, and Nia Roberts, who is the publisher’s head of design. Its illustrations are by Axel Scheffler (Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, and The Whale and the Snail with author Julia Donaldson).

An audio version has been read by actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey, Notting Hill, Paddington, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and is available at the App Store’s CloudAloud streaming app for children’s literacy.

‘We Wanted To Set It Free’

Nosy Crow says the short book is being translated into 44 languages, and the publisher’s stipulation is that international houses make the book available free of charge and use a Creative Commons license so that anyone can link to the book from their site.

Candlewick Press in the United States released its edition for download on April 14.

“We wanted to set it free,” says Wilson. She says it’s now impossible to track the number of downloads. “Loads of people have it on their sites. It’s more important that it gets to people.”

In clear, simple language, the book addresses children directly in a question and answer form, interspersed with Scheffler’s trademark illustrations and comic book bubbles around certain characters. The text explains what the virus is, how one catches it, what happens when you’re ill, why places children usually go are closed, what it’s like to be stuck at home, what children can do to help, and “what will happen next.”

Putting the Book Together

In creating the piece, Nosy Crow worked with Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and had input from principals at primary schools and a children’s clinical psychologist.

“At 8:22 a.m., I emailed Axel and said, ‘We should do a book.’ He got back to me the same day and said yes.”Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow

Wilson says she began thinking about the impact of the pathogen and its pandemic while she was at the Brussels Book Fair on March 4. She spoke at the fair about publishing delays in China and how the cancellation of the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair had taken away Nosy Crow’s yearly contact with international publishers.

When she returned to London, Wilson says, she spoke with one of her closest friends, Sara Haynes, a principal at a primary school in East London. “Sara talked about how afraid the children in her school were,” Wilson says. “They were distressed about the illness and its impact on their lives.”

On March 18, as Wilson was cycling to her office—which the company had just decided to close—”I thought we could use our skills and experience to create a book. At 8:22 a.m., I emailed Axel and said, ‘We should do a book.’ He got back to me the same day and said yes.”

The team began working in the evenings and during the weekend. Daytimes, they were setting up home offices and keeping the business running remotely.

There were many versions of the book, Wilson says. “We tried it with a narrative approach, then we came back to a Q&A format. I kept remembering what Sara’s [school] children had said” about their fears and concerns.

The draft was sent to Medley, who at the time was also working on modeling the pandemic, as Scheffler began to work on illustrations. Medley returned the text with comments, and on the weekend of March 28 and 29 the text was sent to the school principals and a child psychologist at London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital—which recently treated UK prime minister Boris Johnson–for reactions.

Scheffler completed the artwork in four days, Wilson says. He works on paper, so he scanned his art, the Nosy Crow team cleaned it up and positioned it, made a final edit, and made the result available on April 6.

“It’s the fastest we’ve ever worked on a book,” Wilson says.

‘The Idea That You Can Just Do Something’

Nosy Crow’s Kate Wilson with Nielsen’s Andre Breedt at Brussels Book Fair. Image: Olivia Snaije

According to UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition data, some 91 percent of students worldwide are believed to impacted by the pandemic.

In making an international outreach, Nosy Crow contacted the 26 international publishing houses that had acquired Scheffler’s Pip and Posy picture books originally published by Nosy Crow. They also spoke with publishers of other Scheffler titles.

“Very few of the publishers we approached with the idea decided against publishing,” Wilson says.

At Gallimard Jeunesse in Paris, Thomas Dartige says that when Wilson got into touch, “We didn’t hesitate for a second.”

Dartige, the publisher’s editorial head of nonfiction and new media, says, “We have a special relationship with Nosy Crow, and we’re Axel Scheffler’s publisher in France. We’d been thinking about how to help parents answer difficult questions [about COVID-19] and about how we could help children understand and reassure them. We’d also been thinking about publishing more digital books.”

Because Gallimard wanted to move quickly, Dartige translated the text himself with what he says are only a few “cultural” adjustments, adapting the text to confinement rules in France, where schools closed on March 16. His French edition has been made available this week.

Similarly, in the edition from Alfabeta Bokförlag in Sweden—where schools haven’t closed—the text was also adapted for the scenario there.

“Each country can make it reflective of their condition,” Wilson says. “It’s gone very smoothly. People have been extremely professional. No one knows what to do in this kind of situation but we were able to give this small gift.

“We’ve had other inquiries for languages for which we don’t sell rights commercially, like Rohingya,” she says.

The United Nation’ office of the high commissioner for human rights is expected to make an audio-enhanced edition in Rohingya for refugees. And the government of Malta is to publish a printed, bilingual edition of the book in English and Maltese.

Tom Bonnick, Nosy Crow’s senior commissioning editor and business development manager, says that if you include book downloads from the Amazon Kindle Store, Apple Books, Google Books, Rakuten Kobo, and other ebook platforms along with downloads of the PDF through third-party websites, the number of copies is “well in excess” of 1 million.

And Nosy Crow was able to move so quickly, Wilson says, because the company is small.

“It’s about somebody having an idea and being able to do it fast, because we’re not enormous,” she says. “It’s the advantage of being a smallish independent publisher. I didn’t have to explain the idea to anyone. We’re used to the idea that you can just do something.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on childrens’ books is here, on Nosy Crow is here, and on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.