Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

You need only consider the two chapter books I’ve just finished reading to my children to glean the wild fluctuations in mood characteristic of Home Life During the Pandemic. The first, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793—a historical novel set during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—is dark, gripping, macabre, and mind-blowing. The second, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom—thirty interconnected stories about the students at the quirkiest school in literary history—is silly, preposterous, dry-witted, and a rip-roaring good time…while still being a tad apocalyptic, because I can’t resist a theme. If we’re doomed to spend all day, every day, in each other’s presence, while the pendulum of the wider world swings dramatically between fear and hope, heartbreak and grace, serious headlines and funny memes, it seems only appropriate that our read alouds should follow suit.

If I’m being honest, I had forgotten that Fever 1793 (Ages 12-15) is more YA than middle grade. Perhaps if I had remembered how often death makes an appearance in these pages—after all, the 1793 epidemic wiped out 10% of Philadelphia’s population in two months—I would have reconsidered reading this to the nine year old alongside her older brother. Then again, the nine year old was the one begging for another chapter, while my son buried his head in the couch cushions each time the word “corpse” came up.

As strange and unsettling as today’s news headlines are, they are not unprecedented. As parents, we have an interesting opportunity to frame what’s happening right now in a historical context. The real reason to share this book with your children isn’t to scare the bejesus out of them, but to start a conversation about how far we’ve come in our understanding of transmission, medicine, and patient care…while, at the same time, how in the wake of widespread panic, many of the same human reactions continue to surface today.

The novel is delivered from the perspective of ambitious, occasionally foolhardy fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook, who lives with her mother and grandfather above a coffeehouse they run. Mattie longs for the freedom her mother seems bent on keeping from her: freedom to wander the streets alone, to court the man she wants, and to speak aloud her progressive ideas about the coffeehouse. But when the fever descends on the city, nearly claiming her mother and sending Mattie and her frail grandfather fleeing to the countryside and back again, Mattie must start acting the part of the adult she claims to be.

Laurie Halse Anderson weaves plentiful historical details into Mattie’s nail-biting trials, information expanded on in her fascinating, eight-page appendix. We witness the competing medical practices of the time: from bleeding patients to treating with rest and fluids. We see the hoarding and scarcity of food. We watch how isolation and fear drive people to behave in odd, desperate ways. We catch educated people blaming the epidemic on the poor or refugee populations, as if looking and living differently must necessarily give rise to contamination. Our stomachs twist at the eerily quiet streets of Philadelphia, with their shuttered houses, the only flurry of activity from the grave diggers who can’t dig graves quickly enough. Some of this is beyond anything we could ever imagine; other details feel unnervingly familiar.

Still, in the wake of tragedy, hope and resilience can be detected—and the pages of Fever 1793 are no exception. Mattie digs deep to find strength she never even suspected she had. She survives against all odds, her sense of humor intact. She fends off looters with her grandfather’s Revolutionary War sword. She goes from playing the part of an only child to fostering a girl younger than herself. She assists the Free African Society to bathe and feed those abandoned by everyone else. Some of the most memorable characters in the novel do the same: they sacrifice comfort and food to serve their community, to reach out with kindness instead of recoiling in disgust. During the 1793 epidemic, many of the elite, including George Washington, fled Philadelphia. Those who stayed behind to serve were the true heroes of the summer. When ordinary people behave in extraordinary ways, beauty will always triumph over darkness.

The children of Wayside School are facing another kind of darkness, one sillier but no less metaphorical: a black cloud, which has mysteriously settled over their school building and quickly becomes known as the Cloud of Doom. Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom (Ages 7-10, although older and younger will be wholly entertained) is the newest installment in this popular series after a twenty-five year hiatus. If your kids haven’t read the previous ones, no worries. My kids laughed their heads off at the audio recordings on a road trip several years ago but now don’t remember a thing. This did not stop them from wildly delighting in these new stories.

Wayside School isn’t your ordinary school. For starters, there’s an elaborate bell system to memorize (eight clangs mean you have eight minutes to get to class, while nine means a porcupine has entered the school). With only one room per floor, students in Mrs. Jewls class have to climb thirty flights of stairs to get to their classroom, though the benefit of being closest to the clouds is that they can easily access a trapdoor to the roof for science lessons. The students spend their days debating which words are worth learning to spell; choosing books for their number of pages; and logging their finger and toenail clippings in an effort to showcase what “one million” looks like before the end of the school year. There’s a teacher who keeps paperclips under lock and key, a school counselor who hypnotizes, and a librarian who prescribes hugs with a giant stuffed walrus. (Plenty of fodder for distance learning here, my fellow parents, including no shortage of spelling and math problems, which I made my children answer before I agreed to continue reading. Because #winning.)

The Cloud of Doom descends just when Wayside’s students are getting to the pivotal part of their school year. (Sound familiar?) They’re about to embark on the Ultimate Test, which Mrs. Jewls explains as, “You just need to remember everything you’ve ever learned in your whole life.” Personalities are growing testier by the day, too. Terrence kicks the trash basket around the classroom. Kathy says the opposite of what anyone else says. Even the normally pleasant Mrs. Jewls starts changing B’s to F’s, throwing in a minus for good measure.

I didn’t realize just how familiar the Cloud of Doom was until we got to page 64.

“The Cloud of Doom is getting bigger every day!” Myron exclaimed. “What does it matter if we can spell?”
“So we can read and write,” Mrs. Jewls replied.
“What’s the point of reading?” asked Leslie.
“What’s the point of writing?” asked Jason.
“What’s the point of arithmetic?” asked Benjamin.
“There is no point!” Myron grumpled. He slammed his pencil down hard on his desk. The point broke off of it.
“I understand you’re scared and upset,” said Mrs. Jewls. “But what’s the point of quitting? We can all just sit around and grumple, or we can try to do our best, cloud or no cloud.”
“And it hasn’t been all bad,” Mrs. Jewls continued. “We’ve been getting a whole lot more nail clippings.”

And so, the kids continue their thirty-floor climb to their classroom twice a day. They continue to make the best of the cafeteria specials, even when those specials are Spaghetti and Feetballs. They continue to strengthen their arm muscles in case the Principal chooses them to ring the dismissal gong. They continue to spell and count. They fall in love with books they initially thought were much too long. Every morning, they bring in their nail clippings.

Unlike Fever 1793’s protagonist, there’s nothing extraordinary about what the kids at Wayside School are doing. They’re just keeping on. But sometimes keeping on is the very best work we can do. Sometimes we simply need to weather the dark times until the sun shines once more.

“Someday, the Cloud of Doom will be gone,” said Mrs. Jewels. “And the world will be a much better place, even better than before the cloud. Colors will be more colorful. Music will be more musical. Even Miss Mush’s food will taste good. The bigger the storm, the brighter the rainbow.”

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m most active these days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Books published by Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can!

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