Fauci Fan Club
September 16, 2021 § 2 Comments
“Do you know who that is?” I asked my daughter, as she was unpacking my recent book purchases. Cue tween eye-roll. “Mommy. Ever since the pandemic started, you’ve been all ‘Fauci said this,’ ‘Fauci said that.’ It would be impossible to live in this house and not know who Dr. Fauci is.”
I guess it’s clear I’m a member of the Fauci Fan Club.
COVID-19 may have made Dr. Anthony Fauci a household name, but the scientist’s work and guidance on behalf of the American people predate the pandemic by over fifty years. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Fauci has advised seven US presidents on health issues, including those related to AIDS, West Nile, SARS, Ebola, and now COVID-19. In 2008, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work fighting infectious diseases.
In November 2020, acclaimed children’s writer Kate Messner held a Zoom interview with Dr. Fauci, the contents of which became the basis for Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor (Ages 6-9). Messner hastened—along with illustrator Alexandra Bye and their team at Simon & Schuster—to pull off the impossible. The book was birthed into the world in just seven months, not long after many adults and teens had received their second shots. (The publication timeline for a picture book is typically two-plus years.)
As we now prepare our younger kids to be vaccinated—hopefully sooner rather than later—this book provides an immensely useful place to begin a conversation about the Adult in the Room. Who is Dr. Fauci? How did he become an important voice for science and medicine during some of our country’s most challenging moments? Why can we trust science, and why can we trust him? Finally, what does the doctor have to say to our own aspiring young scientists, to the curious minds of this next generation?
This book can be considered in four parts. We begin with Fauci’s childhood, looking at how his interests and personality developed. The second quarter is dedicated to his work at NIAID that predates COVID-19, while the third quarter focuses on the current pandemic, allowing young readers an opportunity to process some of the ups and downs of the past eighteen months, from shut downs to mask mandates to vaccine roll-outs. Finally, the book concludes with a whopping eleven pages of backmatter, including black-and-white pictures from Fauci’s childhood, alongside clearly presented information about the workings and safety of vaccines. There’s even a spread titled, “Dr. Fauci’s Five Tips for Future Scientists.” (If you have older kids interested in the history of vaccines, be sure to check out my Instagram post on Don Brown’s new graphic novel, A Shot in the Arm.)
But let’s begin at the beginning, when we meet Anthony Fauci as a boy, always asking questions, always wondering at the living world around him.
He was the grandson of an Italian immigrant, who loved to cook, and his parents owned and ran a drugstore in Brooklyn, New York. Anthony grew up delivering prescriptions on his bicycle. He credits his father with nudging him to keep an open mind and to remember that every problem has a solution. Here, we are introduced to what would become Fauci’s mantra throughout his life—and what gets a bold graphic treatment four times throughout the book, including on the back cover: Don’t get discouraged. Think about it carefully and try to work it out.
The childhood memories shared in subsequent pages effectively communicate some of the key aspects of Fauci’s personality, the ones he credits with his professional success. He loved to play stickball in the streets of Brooklyn and could hold his own, despite his tiny size. He was competitive—he became known as a “two-sewer guy,” because he could hit the ball the length of two manhole covers—and he had a knack for getting along with different types of people.
His speed on the basketball court also offset his size, and he ingratiated his teammates with his determination and ability to talk and listen to people. He became captain of his high school team.
At some point during high school, Anthony decided he wanted to become a doctor; specifically, he wanted to study medicine at Cornell medical college in New York City. In one of the most powerful spreads in the book, Anthony stands before the Cornell auditorium in his muddy construction boots—during a summer job, his crew happened to be working on a new library for Cornell—before a guard escorts him out. He didn’t look the picture of someone who could be in medical school, but Fauci didn’t let that stop him.
After graduating first in his class from Cornell, he went to work at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and became “one of the country’s top experts on what makes [people] sick…and how to make them well.” The next spreads are devoted to some of the emerging diseases in the years that followed, particularly AIDS, and the way Fauci led teams of researchers and advised presidents on their findings.
Each challenge required an open mind and a persistence to keep going until a solution was found.
And then, at the very end of 2019, COVID-19 appeared and quickly spread around the globe. “A virus too tiny to see had stopped the whole world in its tracks.”
Messner does an excellent job, both at tracking some of the early uncertainty surrounding the virus—“at first Fauci simply didn’t have [the answers]—and showcasing the ways in which scientists around the world collaborated to come up with ways people could stay safe, until more information about the virus could be gathered and a vaccine could be developed.
The story concludes on a note of hope, with the final pages dedicated to the freedom made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. We see Fauci getting his own poke, alongside snapshots of science labs, birthday parties, and family reunions. (Of course, these pictures don’t reflect the recent upswing in infections; it’s now clear that masking is here to stay for awhile longer.)
My husband texted me a meme the other day. In it, a biology teacher instructs her class at the beginning of the school year: “And as we start a new school year, I implore you to pay attention in science class, since it’s becoming painfully apparent that too many of your parents did not.” I busted out laughing, but there’s undeniably a grain of truth here. Fauci advised both Republican and Democratic presidents; and yet, during this pandemic, much of the science he put forth was unfairly and dangerously politicized. We now find ourselves living at a time when science seems easily dismissed in the name of politics, conspiracy theories, convenience, misinformation, and so on. I expect I won’t be the last parent clinging to picture books that hold up science as fascinating, challenging, and absolutely vital.
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