When New Zealand illustrator Phoebe Morris spent the first three weeks of lockdown illustrating and writing a free book to help Kiwi kids navigate Covid-19, she had no idea that it would also find an audience in Japan.
When the pandemic first broke out, Wellington-based illustrator Phoebe Morris knew she wanted to do something to help children understand what was going on. Eager to ensure resources were available as quickly as possible, Morris spent the first three weeks of lockdown cramming in hours around her day job writing and illustrating the book, Super Felix.
“Hearing how much risk health care workers were faced with, while feeling like I was stuck at home contributing nothing, was really messed up,” said Morris.
But Morris, who is perhaps best known for her collaborations with the acclaimed children’s book author David Hill on their series of picture books depicting the lives of famous New Zealanders, was quick to put her own visual communications skills to good use. “I realised we were going to need children’s resources about this, and that there weren't going to be many people positioned to produce them at the speed that we needed. And I thought that’s something I can do to help.”
Available for free on her website, the picture book aims to help children aged four to eight make sense of COVID-19 and the importance of following special measures in order to keep themselves and others safe. Appealing to children’s sense of imagination, it also builds on the simple but important message: that by washing hands and social distancing, anyone can be a hero.
Morris developed the story with a friend’s kindergarten-aged son, Felix, in mind and tested it with him and his writer mum to make sure children would find it engaging. Conscious of the fear and anxiety many kids were feeling, Morris was keen to explain the pandemic in a way that children wouldn’t find scary: “I wanted to talk about Covid in a way that wasn’t frightening and instead made children feel empowered.”
Morris self-published the book and promotion has primarily been limited to her own social media channels. But news about the book spread and after a volunteer approached Morris offering to translate the book into Arabic, Morris made an Instagram post asking if others would be willing to translate it into other languages. She soon started receiving messages from interested individuals within New Zealand and overseas.
All of the translations have been done by volunteers and, as Morris points out, in calling for translators she hoped to provide others with the same welcome distraction and sense of contribution that the project had given her. There are now thirteen different language versions of the book freely accessible for download and print on Morris’s website, including Te Reo, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Morris is even expecting a Farsi version to be available shortly.
Yet the book has proven most successful in Japan, where 3,000 physical copies of it are about to be printed and distributed across the country with the help of Keio University and renowned publisher, Froebel-Kan Co., who volunteered to reformat the book for print (but who are not linked to printing or distribution).
Dr Kudo Noriko, a pediatrician based in Japan discovered the book while searching the internet for children’s COVID-19 resources. Working on a project to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring that those of all ages have access to the correct information led by Keio University called “Everybody is a Hero,” the book’s message immediately struck a chord with Dr Kudo.
“As a pediatrician, I’m trained to find the right way to give children information. I was Googling trying to find a nice book, but there weren’t any suitable books in Japan, and then I found Phoebe’s book. ”
Dr Kudo explained, “I was very surprised because her book is about superheroes and our project’s name is ‘Everybody is a Hero,’ so it’s very connected. It’s very easy to understand, and the wonderful part is [the message that by] washing hands, wearing masks and keeping our distance from one another, we can save one another’s lives. I love that story.”
Dr Kudo also felt the illustrations would help provide a sense of comfort to readers, both young and old, as they adapted to their new ways of life.
Seeing that the storybook had already been translated into several other languages, Dr Kudo reached out to Morris to see if she was willing to help produce a Japanese version. Morris was quick to say yes.
Dr Kudo, who speaks fluent English but is not a professional translator, did the initial translation of the book herself. A team at Keio University then refined the translation, making sure it would be accessible to young readers.
Japan also holds special significance for Morris who visited the country in 2015. “[Having the book printed in Japan] is so nice because I love Japan so much. It’s one of my all-time favourite places and so many of my creative influences, like [the acclaimed animation film studio] Studio Ghibli, are from Japan.”
Morris hopes that she’ll be able to visit Dr Kudo and the team of volunteers that have made the Japanese version of the book possible once it is safe to travel again. In the meantime, the team has promised to send Morris a printed copy of the book.
- Asia Media Centre