Weathering the Storm Together by Dan Yaccarino
Across all boundaries of geography and politics, the COVID-19 Pandemic has changed how we live. No doubt it has profoundly affected you and your loved ones.
As a children’s book creator, I wanted to dream up a story that would somehow express this very difficult experience we were all going through, with little preparation. We’ve each had to figure out how to weather this almost science fiction-like scenario that has become our non-fictional reality.
My first instinct was that I’d have to create an accessible, universal, emotional experience, pretty much as I had been doing throughout my career in one way or another.
But it soon became clear that this time, it would have to be far more personal.
And painful. And, in the end, incredibly rewarding.
As the pandemic began, I was a newly divorced dad, living part-time with my two children, who happened to be college-age, so already moving toward their own independent lives. Still, there the three of us were together, in a totally new and strange way. I wanted to talk about how it felt for us to be suddenly living in close quarters for long stretches. I wanted to talk about submitting to the travel restrictions, as well as the fear and anxiety that surrounded us.
But mostly, I wanted to talk about all of the difficult emotions that I realized were being kicked up by our new situation as a family. The storm that was raging both outside and inside.
Or was this all too much for a picture book?
The basic idea for the book had been floating around in my head since the beginning of the pandemic, but I hadn’t jotted anything down yet, which is typical of me. I usually have at least a dozen ideas turning over in my mind at any given moment that I haven’t yet committed to paper (which, by the way, accounts for my habit of occasionally zoning out as I mentally work on them, so don’t take it personally if you’re talking to me and notice a weird expression on my face).
A few months into the pandemic, I met with my friend and soon-to-be editor, Maria Russo, who had just become the US editorial director of minedition, to talk about picture book ideas. As we sat six feet apart in her backyard, I hesitantly relayed the germ of an idea I had about a family stuck indoors together who had drifted apart, but had to figure out how to come back together. I hoped I could somehow shape this to reflect my own personal experience. This was simply met with, “Let’s do that.”
I now had the freedom to explore the idea, and I realized the family could be sheltering from a storm, which represented Covid-19, but also so many other possible disasters. That way, this story could live beyond the end of the pandemic (whenever that was going to happen).
At first I played it safe, concocting some silly conflicts for the family, which were then quickly resolved, leaving the family happy, and building to an even happier ending.
“Go deeper,” I was told. “Go to the places you’re afraid to go.”
So, I did, but it wasn’t easy. I reflected on the short tempers. The boredom, the feeling of being cooped up. The reality of now having to deal with every conflict we’d been attempting to side-step or sweep under the rug for the last few years. This time we had to face them without escape or distraction, since we couldn’t go anywhere. We had to deal with them.
At first, my kids and I talked about the immediate issues surrounding the pandemic and how our normal everyday lives had changed. But I noticed those conversations moving into a deeper, darker place, a place we had always been hesitant, and maybe even afraid, to go. But maybe, I hoped, it would be a little less scary if we went there together.
Over the last few years, my family’s lives have changed in ways that are more profound and irrevocable than even what the pandemic brought us. This is what I found myself talking about in subsequent drafts of the book dummy. I dug into feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness, as well as the regret, remorse, and even the grief that seemed to permeate everything.
Not exactly what you’d think of being in a picture book, but there it was.
If there was one thing I’ve learned from creating picture books like Every Friday and All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel, it’s that the more intimate and personal you get, the more universal your story becomes. But by the time The Longest Storm was finished, I realized that it is far more intimate, nuanced, and complicated than even those books, because it all accounted for the harder parts of being in a family.
There are so many layers of meaning for me in this book. There’s a lot of ambiguity, so that people can bring to it their own experiences of family rupture, loss, and togetherness. That’s not at all how I approached my books in the past, but I’m so happy with the result that I plan to keep working in that way, making books that have room for lots and lots of meanings.
My biggest hope for The Longest Storm is that it leads readers to the deepest places, perhaps even dark and scary ones, but knowing they’ll be less scary if we go there together.
DAN YACCARINO is an internationally acclaimed author-illustrator with more than thirty books to his credit, including Five Little Pumpkins, Doug Unplugged, and an edition of Mother Goose rhymes for Little Golden Books. Yaccarino is also the creator of the animated TV series Oswald and Willa’s Wild Life, and he designed the characters for The Backyardigans. Visit him at www.yaccarinostudio.com; @DanYaccarino1 (Twitter); @DanYaccarino (Instagram)
Check out the Longest Storm activity sheets in the link below: