SOAS student creates storybook for children on COVID-19 in collaboration with the WHO

7 April 2020

Author, illustrator and current MSc Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice student at SOAS, Helen Patuck has written and illustrated an emergency children's book titled My Hero is You, Storybook for Children on COVID-19 in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings (IASC MHPSS RG), to help children across the world cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

"My Hero Is You" was developed with thousands of children and caregivers across the world, and the messaging was developed with a global team of psychologists at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. The project was supported by global, regional and country based experts from Member Agencies of the IASC MHPSS RG, in addition to parents, carers, teachers and children in 104 countries. A global survey was distributed in Arabic, English, Italian, French and Spanish to assess children’s mental health and psychosocial needs during the COVID-19 outbreak. A framework of topics to be addressed through the story was developed using the survey results. The book was shared through storytelling to children in several countries affected by COVID-19. Feedback from children, parents and caregivers was then used to review and update the story.

"My Hero Is You" is available to download from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee website .

Read our interview with Helen below.

Inteview with author, Helen Patuck

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I am a queer feminist author and illustrator currently completing the MSc Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS. At 30 I am a mature student, and love the friends I’ve made here, many of whom supported me in writing this book. I am based in London now, but for the past seven years I have been developing children’s books and creative methods with my organisation, Kitabna . Kitabna means "our book" in Arabic and our aim is to encourage indigenous storytelling spaces and publish multilingual children's books with communities affected by war and disaster. We have been working with displaced communities, INGOs and civil society to do this in Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Syria and most recently Northern Ireland. My family is from Somerset and my Parsi grandfather always inspired me with our family's history of displacement, which began when they fled from Iran to India, then centuries later migrated to London.

I currently work creatively on psychosocial interventions with WHO, and Syrian women's oral histories around access to their housing, land and property rights with NRC ICLA.

Why did you decide to create a storybook for children about Covid-19?

I was contacted by colleagues at WHO and the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) when they started gathering their Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergencies to respond to the global COVID-19 crisis. They were looking for a writer to create a story that could respond to the fears of children globally. Members from the International Federation of the Red Cross had coordinated the surveys of thousands of children and caregivers in over 100 countries to analyse what children were feeling most afraid of following the outbreak. This was our raw data, and these would become our reading groups as I wrote the story and we shared it with them over days. I also reached out to my own community at SOAS and online for feedback.

At WHO we call this human-centred design, where we create resources with the people we want to benefit from them. Our group at IASC aimed to create a book which could provide families with some basic coping tools, hope and a sense of agency in the face of self-isolation, loss and change. Our vision was to create a free story for everyone to read, using the full strength, translation capacities and reach of the international community.

Writing "My Hero Is You", creating these illustrations and sharing in the global translation effort is my act of solidarity and care for everyone going through this difficult time. This is the least I can do as essential workers give their time, greatest efforts, and so sadly, their lives to support those most affected.

How did the collaboration with the WHO come about?

I have been working with the WHO on their psychosocial interventions since 2018 when they needed a creative writer to develop stories that could package basic CBT in an app for vulnerable Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon. I lived there for some years and worked on various trauma-related publications in the MENA region. These interventions package low-risk coping tools to help people who do not have access to formal healthcare manage their emotional distress, which can often be as debilitating as physical injury.

As a creative writer my role is to package these tools in stories that capture and support vulnerable people. As it worked so well, we have worked on subsequent interventions together in Tanzania and South Africa, and now with IASC too.

It is a very strange time for global populations and especially children, how does the book help them understand the crisis?

It is a time full of uncertainty and change. I believe children’s books and stories can offer some continuity, because they enter the homes, hearts and minds of families in a familiar way.

“My Hero Is You” aims to break down some of the most fearful elements of the crisis identified in our surveys, namely isolation, missing loved ones, risk of death, what happens when children/loved ones contract the virus, not knowing when things are going to get better. We also wanted to share key health advice such as staying at home, sneezing into elbows, staying at least one metre apart and washing hands with soap and water.

Sara is my strong hero, and sets out with her magical friend Ario to discover these things from children in other countries, who are overcoming challenges in their own ways. Along the way, she meets Salem, Sasha, Leila and Kim, who are all coping with their fears in different circumstances. What unites them all is a sense of care for each other, their capacity to be heroes for their loved ones, and the understanding that this won’t last forever.

For mental health and wellbeing, the coping tools we share in this book range from managing stress by reaching out to a loved one, supporting each other with caring gestures, and introducing some techniques, like imagining a "safe place" in their minds. Most importantly we emphasise social support and friendship.

All of these techniques require children to look within themselves to find answers to their problems, and discover their own resourcefulness in response to this crisis. By staying home, children are being heroes, and small things like caring about each other, calling their loved ones, and finding ways to stay positive at home all contribute to this.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the translation campaign to translate the story into 34 languages, in addition to the 6 UN languages?

At IASC and WHO we are working hard to create the 5 other UN language versions (Arabic, French, Chinese, Spanish and Russian). However, we have also reached out across global networks of psychologists and translators to develop many non-UN language versions. The response has been incredible. We have people working on:

Latvian, German, Ukrainian, Pashto, Dari, Sinhala, Portuguese, Mongolian, Greek, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Filipino, Bahasa Malay, Pisin, Javanese, Gowa, Bugis, Vietnamese, Teturn, Japanese, Bengali, Turkish, Tamil, Albanian, Icelandic, Farsi, Swahili, Hausa, Kanuri, Shuwa Arabic – and our list is growing!

Even beyond our translation efforts, we have amended the copyright licence of this book to give it Creative Commons status. This means anyone can translate and adapt this book for their community needs. For example, academics at John Hopkins University in the US are currently working on a Navajo version with a local indigenous artist to make this as relevant as possible for their communities. A teacher is creating a translation into the local dialect of Yumplatok on an island in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Just this morning we have been completing the Danish, Bahasa Malay and Ukrainian versions!

I invite anyone in the SOAS linguistic community to reach out and join our efforts if you have capacity, you can contact me on SOAS email or through Maya Bachet , who is coordinating all non-UN language translations through our group.