Character Framing in COVID-19 Storybooks: Training the Next Generation of Superheroes
When considering how certain elements of children’s books affect a child’s reaction to a serious topic, critics often focus on character framing and the author’s choice to feature either a protagonist or antagonist. However, this approach fails to capture the entire story. With COVID-19 and more authors highlighting the virus itself as a main character, it is imperative that they consider whether they are using a gain or loss-framed message, as certain pairings could have disastrous results for spreading the message of safety. This paper will focus on the implications of each form of message framing for picture books surrounding COVID-19, specifically highlighting the differences between Hello by Manuela Molina Cruz and The Virus-Stopping Champion by Hilary Rogers. It will compare the portrayal of the virus as a friendly figure in Hello with the choice to center around a child in The Virus-Stopping Champion, as well as how the use of a gain-framed approach played into each. The paper will conclude by explaining how, despite using drastically different approaches, both authors were able to successfully convey their points while walking a fine line between scaring children too much or making them overly interested in the virus and not taking the proper safety precautions.
In a little less than a year, the terms “unprecedented times,” “new normal,” and “pandemic” have woven their way into everyday vernacular and are often met with groans from those tired of having to be flexible with their daily routines. But for the youngest generations, this “new normal” is the only one they’ve grown up with, with masks and social distancing molding their earliest memories. How do you teach a child the seriousness of the only situation they’ve ever known?
Storybooks are a great start. Many critics judge a book’s ability to successfully educate about the virus based on the way the author frames the main character – either as the protagonist or antagonist (Huang and Cui 448-467). This approach severely underestimates the importance of other factors – it is not simply the central figure itself that can predict the book’s reception, it is the matching of character type and message framing that makes certain pieces of literature especially impactful. Manuela Molina Cruz’s Hello and Hilary Rogers’ The Virus-Stopping Champion are two examples from the explosion of child-targeted books about COVID-19 that both take different approaches to spreading awareness through these varying combinations. This essay will evaluate the success of each picture book, proving that, when discussing the virus, it is imperative that authors consider whether they are using a gain or loss-framed message in their work as certain pairings could have disastrous results for spreading the message of safety.
Children’s Books as Informational Tools
Children’s books have long been cited as one of the best methods of teaching younger generations about illness transmission. Several studies have demonstrated significant improvements in knowledge about diseases after the kids are exposed to contagion-related works. Children reading prevention books are more likely to recognize dangerous situations and refuse actions that put themselves at risk (Huang and Cui 460). These stories have even surpassed television shows, commercials, and songs as the preferred method of instruction as the static pictorial style is less distracting than animated shorts, allowing children to concentrate on the message at hand and improving recall (Hutton et al. 139). Results suggest that picture books are especially effective when they require kids to actively answer questions about the story or put themselves in the main character’s shoes – both techniques promoted by Cruz and Rogers. This evokes empathy by fostering an in-group mentality; the children picture themselves as part of a team fighting towards a common cause (Kucirkova 9).
The Effects of Main Character Selection and Portrayal
Choosing the main character is arguably one of the biggest choices an author must make when writing a children’s book, especially one intended to inform about a health-related issue. Characters can be humans, animals, inanimate objects, supernatural beings, and more, framed as either a protagonist or antagonist. There are many blanket assumptions made about a book simply by looking at who it centers around; for example, in Cruz’s Hello, she chose to feature the virus itself as the protagonist. This raises questions – is it dangerous to portray such a vicious illness in a positive light and could this lead to children being overly curious about the virus rather than developing a healthy fear of it? Rogers, on the other hand, chose a young child as the narrator for The Virus-Stopping Champion, bringing us along in their journey to fight the virus and keep their family safe through the lens of a superhero fighting against evil. Upon first glance, it would seem that Rogers’ tactic would be more successful in educating about disease prevention as it clearly villainizes COVID-19, instilling a healthy amount of fear in the young readers so they stay away and practice prevention techniques. However, the truth is not that simple. While certainly important, the characters alone do not dictate an audience’s response to a narrative; it is the combination of the character and the message framing that makes it so impactful.
Types of Framing and Their Impact on Message Retention
Message framing is the approach or context an author uses to refer to the information they are presenting. A gain-framed message is one in which the author focuses on a positive outcome of a given situation, while a loss-framed message centers on a more negative result. For example, a gain-framed approach might say “you will live longer if you quit smoking,” while a loss-framed one would advertise an earlier death for those who fail to quit before a certain age. Research by Sangruo Huang and Chen Cui examined how pairing the two types of message framing with human vs. non-human characters affected children’s ability to identify instances of sexual assault as well as their recall ability and attitudes towards sexual assault lessons in literature (458). Those exposed to gain-framed messages saw increased message recall, self-efficacy, and positivity towards the content of the books than their counterparts exposed to loss-framed stories. Their findings went even further, reporting that contrary to previously-stated beliefs, using human characters only elicited a more positive result than non-human characters when the message was gain-framed. Loss-framed messages saw no difference in the reception and application of the message (Huang and Cui 448-467).
Both Hello and The Virus-Stopping Champion chose a gain-framed approach for their stories. Hello provided actions that children could take, such as washing their hands or using hand sanitizer, to reduce exposure to the virus. It sprinkled in interactive elements throughout, even including a silhouette of a child’s head where they can color in how they are feeling, to keep the children engaged and make them feel like they are active participants in warding off germs (Cruz 4). The Virus-Stopping Champion went a similar route, teaching young kids to maintain a 1.5 meter distance from others and stay home as much as possible in order to be the best superheroes possible and “save” their friends and family from contracting COVID-19. By using lines such as “This is exciting because I love helping” and “I want to be a virus-stopping champion” the picture book fosters a curiosity and initiative in its young audience to try and be like the kid in the book and live out their superhero dreams (Rogers 6). While both of the books mention the possibility of negative outcomes, neither is classified as loss-framed as they primarily center on the preventative measures that can be taken to reduce the spread.
Comparing the Efficacy of Various Author Approaches
When evaluating the success of the two narratives, we must compare how each author went about interweaving their message framing with their character portrayals. Hello is a gain-framed message paired with a non-human protagonist (the virus), while The Virus-Stopping Champion pairs its gain-framed perspective with a human as its narrator. While both provide a better foundation for learning about the virus than no book at all, it is Rogers’ storybook that truly “comes to the rescue” by having the most educational value and positive impact on its young readers. Had both authors taken a loss-framed approach or centered around human protagonists, it would have been nearly impossible to accurately declare one work to be more effective than the other, but it is the crucial human/non-human plus gained-framed distinction that allows us to determine a clear result. Molina Cruz’s imagery of the virus with heart eyes and a big smile, while cute, subtly undermines her argument by confusing her young audience. How are the kids supposed to fear something when it looks so welcoming? For a clearer outcome, Cruz could have either depicted the virus as an evil figure (either through furrowed eyebrows or a more harsh tone in its narration) or posed her story through a loss-framed lens by saying that those who fail to complete the outlined safety measures risk illness or even death. As this is a children’s book, the first approach is likely to be the safer option, but either way, it is imperative that authors are clear in their message and do not accidentally weaken their own point.
Hilary Rogers’ The Virus-Stopping Champion and Manuela Molina Cruz’s Hello underscore the importance of being intentional in not only the characters featured and the way the content is framed, but also in the way the two interact, as that can make or break a successful story. In the words of Roman Krznaric, “empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions,” and children’s books provide a unique opportunity to do just that. The fusion of a gain-framed message with a human protagonist works so well because of our natural tendency to empathize with others, we will see ourselves reflected in the main character and be more likely to want to reduce whatever stressor is harming that person in our own lives. Despite the disparity in ability to relate to the main characters of each book, both Rogers and Molina Cruz use positive message framing to inform young kids about preventative measures they can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and encourage them to ponder how they can positively impact the world around them.
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