In the midst of the first full month of pandemic-induced sheltering, Iowans across the state were looking for ways to make sense of their situation. I’m talking deep April, when we all started realizing that there was no quick and easy way out of this. When the itch to socialize was becoming unbearable. When we began to wonder if we’d get to experience spring.
One thing that marked that time most distinctly was the realization on the part of parents that we were going to need to find a way to help our children through something that we hadn’t fully gotten a grasp on ourselves.
It was in that confusion that Iowa City artist and writer R.E. Lane found her creative space.
Released May 5, Hunker in my Bunker: When it’s time to stay inside is a charming children’s book that gives voice to the experiences of a young child weathering an extended isolation. The reasoning is ambiguous — there is sickness in the book, but all in all, it’s aiming for a child’s imperfect perception of what is going on in the world of the pandemic. It’s not a way of explaining to a child, per se, but an attempt to help a child process.
The book is filled with coping skills couched in clever rhyme. “Today I’ll wear pajamas / But tomorrow I’ll dress up,” Lane writes. “When you’re hunkered in your bunker, / You’ve just got to switch it up.” (Perhaps this serves as a good lesson for the ostensible adults among us as well, types your reviewer, at noon, in pajamas and not, sadly, a dragon costume.)
Lane’s interesting conceit in the publishing of this book is that there are seven different versions available. She iterated her story with different looks for the central character, so that children of a variety of races and backgrounds could see themselves in the tale. Without having purchased them all, it looks from the covers as though at least two are male characters, the rest female (the story is all in first-person, with no gendered pronouns referring to the narrator), with a wide cross-section of hair colors and skin tones.
There’s no denying that it’s important for children to see characters they can identify with in the works that they read. But the presence of so many options serves also to highlight the families that aren’t represented — there is a Mama and a Daddy in the book, for example, and both are the same coloring as the child. There are also a grandpa and a younger sibling, locking the story into a specificity that limits the child’s self-insertion.
But the effort, though imperfect, is intriguing. And the book itself, publishing conceit aside, is sweet enough that any child should be able to relate. The honeyed hopefulness is the right dash of optimism for this point in history. And the tender moments — the look of concern on the dog’s face when the child is sick, for example — land beautifully.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 283.