Research Spotlight: Literary Approaches to Pandemic Disasters

Professor Jean Webb discusses her newly accepted abstract on children, pandemics and literature.

Prof Jean Webb has had a proposal accepted by the Book 2.0 Journal for an article entitled ‘Ghosts, murder and mutation: literary approaches to pandemic disasters’ which will discuss the various ways that texts for children have approached pandemics and trace the emergent themes. The coronavirus pandemic has stimulated a number of texts aimed at helping children to cope with situations alien to them. For example, the picture book Staying Home by Sally Nichols and Vivienne Schwarz (2020) deals with the conditions of lockdown and family isolation whilst Piperpotamus by Annis Watts, endeavours to explain Covid-19.

Sally Nicholls and Vivienne Schwarz, Staying Home
Illustration from Annis Watts’ Piperpotamus

Tragically this pandemic is not the only such event in history. The Black Death swept across Europe (1347- 1351); The Great Plague in 1665 and the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918-1920 stimulating historical fiction for older children and Young Adults interestingly employing differing literary approaches. For instance, Cat Winters’ In the Shadow of Blackbirds (2013), incorporates a ghost story set against the contexts of séances and spirit photographers as the bereaved hope to gain comfort, whilst Charles Todd’s An Unmarked Grave (2012), is a murder mystery. Dystopian science fiction has also been employed to examine the equivalent circumstances of such pandemics. The plague in Michael Grant’s Gone (2008-2014) follows a nuclear disaster which has produced a world where only those under fifteen have survived beneath a dome created by a young autistic child at the point of the explosion. Unforeseen forces have erupted resulting in mutation where individuals have super-natural powers taking them into a posthuman state. Their world is later blighted by plague and the children have to deal with re-making their lives and their society without the help of adults. These texts are not merely entertainment but give our current generation of children ways of thinking about their present and their futures.