Kate Messner writes children's book on Dr. Fauci's Brooklyn beginnings

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Robin Caudell, The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
·6 min read
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Mar. 25—PLATTSBURGH — Children's book author Kate Messner's "Dr. Fauci, How A Boy From Brooklyn Became America's Doctor," illustrated by Alexandra Bye, drops on June 29.

The book is for ages 4-8 and is touted as "the definitive picture book biography of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the most crucial figures in the COVID-19 pandemic."

PROJECT PIVOT

Last spring, the Plattsburgh resident was working on a completely different project, a book called "The Next Great Scientist," which is about how scientists get to be scientists.

"It's all about the childhood passions of people who grew up to make contributions to science," Messner said.

"So everybody from Einstein to modern-day scientists who are working today. As part of that research, I was reaching out to some current scientists to ask about their childhoods, and I sent an email to Dr. Fauci's office with a couple of questions."

The renowned doctor was kind enough to send answers to Messner's questions and included a story about how his family owed a pharmacy in Brooklyn when he was a kid.

"His mom and his sister would work the cash register at the pharmacy," Messner said.

"And from the time he was 9 or 10 years old, he would deliver prescriptions. He would ride around Brooklyn on his Schwinn bicycle delivering prescriptions from his dad's pharmacy."

It was a great story, a definite entry in "The Next Great Scientist," but Messner saw more potential.

"The more I thought about it and the more I read about Dr. Fauci's upbringing, the more I thought it would be really great to have a picture book biography for kids about his life."

Messner could see that so many of the seeds of his contributions to public health were planted in his childhood.

"From the service of helping out with his father's pharmacy," she said.

"He had such a determined curiosity about everything. He used to read encyclopedias. That's an activity after my own heart because I was an encyclopedia reader as a kid, too. He wondered about the tropical fish in his bedroom. He was fascinated by the planets and the stars. He was just curious about everything and that curiosity is really what led to his career in medicine and public health."

CALLING AMERICA'S DOCTOR

After Messner did a ton of research, reading about his life and reading his publications, she reached out to Dr. Fauci's office again last fall.

"To say that I would love to write a picture book biography and would he consider making time for longer interview via Zoom," she said.

"They said yes. I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous about asking because here's a guy who is perhaps the busiest man in America during the COVID-19 pandemic and here I am asking for an interview for a children's book."

But Messner, who is a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer along with her husband, Tom, knew so much of public health is connected to education whether it's safety measures to prevent COVID-19 or the drive to get people vaccinated.

Messner was delighted when his office agreed, and they made time for an interview. The first time she spoke with him was for about 45 minutes after his work day at the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

"He was actually on his way home after work in the evening," she said.

"He was in the car when we were chatting. He was great. He answered my questions and just told so many great stories from his childhood about his Italian immigrant grandfather cooking for the family on Sundays."

HOME TRAINING

Dr. Fauci shared how his father helped him and his sister with homework and really encouraged them not to get discouraged when they saw a hard problem.

"That is something so resonant with Dr. Fauci's future career," she said.

"His work has been nothing but hard problems."

Messner found it interesting to learn how his communication skills arose from disparate environments.

"He grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, but also went to this fairly elite Jesuit high school and was equally at home talking baseball with the tough guys in Brooklyn while he was playing stick ball with them or talking about Greek philosophy with his fellow scholars at Regis High School.

"He sort of was comfortable communicating with all different kinds of people and that turned out to be something that would be essential in his work in public health."

Messner did a subsequent short Zoom interview with him, and went back and forth and back and forth with his staff to get details such as which hand did he bat with (right).

"His life story is one that I think can really inspire kids because he grew up just this curious kid that asked a million questions and decided to choose this life of service in public health," she said.

QUICK SALE

Messner's literary agent shopped the book to different publishers, and Messner's editor at Simon & Schuster snapped it up within 24 hours.

"She said we want to publish this book," Messner said.

"It's a great story and we would like to publish it quickly. She wanted it to come out at a time when people are still hearing about not only the pandemic but also vaccination efforts."

The back matter of the book includes information about how the vaccines work and why vaccines are such an essential piece of public health.

"The editor that I worked with, Kendra Levin at Simon & Schuster, she was amazing to work with," Messner said.

"She pushed me to make the manuscript stronger and encouraged me to include a lot of really rich, back matter for kids who are curious and want even more information."

There is a detailed timeline of the doctor's life, a two-page spread of how vaccines work, and information about the COVID-19 vaccines in particular.

"I asked Dr. Fauci if he would share five tips for future scientists that could be part of the book," she said.

"So that's sort of his contribution to the book. It's a book that I really hope will inspire kids to follow their own curiosity and hopefully lead to some new science careers as well."

The book retails for $17.99, and Messner will sign pre-orders through the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, www.thebookstoreplus.com.

"I've been kind of making a pitch for people to purchase this one from their local independent bookstores, especially since when Dr. Fauci was growing up he helped out with his family's local small business," she said.

Email Robin Caudell:

rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

Twitter:@RobinCaudell