For many kids, the coronavirus pandemic is the monster parked on their doorsteps, ready to snatch them as it has many of the activities that make childhood such a magical time.
“It is this big, unknown threat that is lurking around and you have to stay hidden in your house to keep it from getting you — that’s a monster,” says American actor Denis O’Hare, who is narrating “Monster Dance,” an animated e-book expected to be available this fall.
O’Hare joins collaborators Guy Gilchrist, the cartoonist behind Jim Henson’s “The Muppets”; Paris-based children’s book author and publisher Eva Lou; and U.S. physician Dr. Karen Tsai, who worried the emotional struggle of kids to understand why their lives were upended was getting lost in the urgent response to the pandemic.
O’Hare’s 9-year-old son doesn’t fear the monster. His parents have talked to him about his personal responsibility as a world citizen to help stem the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask and washing his hands the moment he comes in the house is as natural as asking for a snack.
“Kids spend their whole lives being told basically what’s happening without being told what’s happening,” O’Hare says. “It’s especially important now to give more than ‘you can’t do this,’ or “Oh, honey, we’re not going to go to school’ or ‘you can’t go outside ever.’ Kids are brilliant about really understanding this isn’t a hoax.”
He was drawn to the concept behind “Monster Dance,” which reduces the coronavirus to “a little thing, a teeny thing” that can only be seen through a microscope. The approach “belittles but also respects” the power of the virus, and “takes away the fear to let it be known as something that is manageable,” O’Hare says.
“Monster Dance” is the story of an endearingly melodramatic dog named Maurice growling about the boring dog food he has to eat at home and other activities that have suddenly been taken away — surely a sign, in Maurice’s mind, that there’s a horrible monster outside. The monster grows larger and larger in the dog’s head. As he voices his greatest fears, a little girl named Charlie teaches him practical ways to fight it, including the lesson that patience and caution are not fear, but courage.
The project, still in the fundraising phase through a Kickstarter campaign, started with Tsai, a Los Angeles physician who co-founded DonatePPE.org, a nonprofit group that procures PPE for medical professionals.
A vaccine or cure for the COVID-19 illness lies somewhere in the nebulous future. But kids’ needs are in the present and, Tsai thought, were getting lost in the scramble.
So she got in touch with Gilchrist, whose credits also include “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Pink Panther,” and wondered if he could help.
Gilchrist, who lives in Nashville, was all in.
“That’s what I’m good at, what God has equipped me to do — to tell stories and to draw pictures to make you smile,” he says.
“It’s definitely meant to be,” Gilchrist says. “Karen is a hero of mine. She blows my mind. She became very aware right at the beginning of the pandemic there was not enough PPE. No one was doing anything. So she just did something. By the time she started talking to me, this one woman had put together an organization that resulted in 1.3 million pieces of PPE donated from all over the country.”
Normally, book publishing moves at the pace of a tortoise. It can be years after the acceptance of a manuscript before a book rolls off the presses. Getting “Monster Dance” to kids while the pandemic was still going on seemed impossible.
“But nothing’s impossible,” Gilchrist adds. “We found a kindred spirit in Eva.”
The project is moving like a cheetah now that he and Tsai have teamed with Lou and Madeleine Editions.
Gilchrist says that “as a person pretending to be an adult and having a job all these years,” he has often featured “goofy monsters” in his drawings to help kids confront their fears. He loves drawing them, and thought they would be a good vehicle to empower children against the virus — and, importantly, to make a child the hero of the story.
“Eva just jumped all over that,” Gilchrist says.
He sent her some of the monster drawings of his “Night Lights” books 30 years ago, and she sent him photographers of her daughter and dog “and this thing started to happen,” Gilchrist says. “What if the dog was the child scared of the monster, and the little girl was the voice of reason?”
The project came along when Gilchrist’s own life was upended.
“I’m used to being on the road, drawing and making people smile and telling stories — at motivational speaking events, at comic-cons, and gosh, all of a sudden, I’m at home and isolated and really wanting to connect, but feeling very small and very powerless,” he says.
Gilchrist couldn’t shut off the energy.
“I was in full artist mode,” he says “I put on a podcast in the background. It was just me and my dog, not answering the phone, just in creative mode. Throughout my whole career, I’ve drawn very, very fast. I can’t wait to see you smile.”
Lou was in week five of the coronavirus lockdown in Paris when she connected with Gilchrist and Tsai.
“It was a drastic lifestyle change,” she says. “For my daughter and friends and children around the world, life was turning upside down, literally overnight — no schools, no play dates, no meals at restaurants. Families had to bunker down as if they were living in a war.”
The character Charlie is inspired by her daughter, now 8. Lou says she had written for adults “until I became a parent of this story-loving little girl,” and then established her own publishing house and put to paper the stories she told her daughter.
“Monster Dance” is more directly inspired by Lou’s daughter than her other tales. She’s at an age that she understands the pandemic and what needs to be done to control the virus spread, “but for children under 6, it’s especially hard to understand,” Lou says.
Lou says her goal with the book is “to put it in a context even the littlest readers under 6 can understand, and to put them in a position of power and authority.”
It also has a lesson, as all of Lou’s books do: “Enjoying life, even during times of sickness, can lead to a dance to make every day count and to still grow with joy,” she says.
About 20 people collaborated to move the project ahead.
“We were driven by a real sense of urgency, and a way to do something that felt real and concrete,” Lou says. “It felt good to do something to contribute rather than feel helpless. This was an opportunity to confront this monster head-on with real results.”
“We could do something concrete instead of feeling helpless. It is so relevant to the current situation, the life of everybody around us, and we were really lucky in a way because everyone had a different talent, and it all works.”
O’Hare, whose film credits include “Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Proposal” and “Garden State,” among others, came on board after talking to Lou. Their children attend the same school in Paris.
One of the many things he likes about “Monster Dance” is that it doesn’t delve into the science of coronavirus. Rather, he says, it is “crystal clear about what it feels like to be frustrated, to be cooped up and not get to do the same things, to be alone."
“That’s what so great about it," O'Hare says. "It’s a voice of inspiration.”
Gilchrist says he hopes children will feel as if they have a lifelong friend in the book, someone who understands what they’re going through long after the pandemic has passed.
“We as adults read a book, and we’re done,” he says. “If you’re successful with picture book for children, the book becomes part of the family, part of the things around your room and becomes a friend you look at over and over and over again and you read over and over and pass along and share with friends.”
Though the book is being published during the coronavirus pandemic, Gilchrist thinks it will help children confront other monsters in their lives. Before the pandemic, he often traveled early to cities holding comic-cons so he could visit children in hospitals, share a few posters and draw for them.
“Of course, when you do that, your heart breaks and then it’s patched back together, it breaks and gets patched back together,” he says. “There’s so much hurt and so much hope, so much sadness and so much love, so much want and desire.
“I am so grateful that God put this in my life that we will be able to, while talking about COVID, help children confront any disease, any challenge they’re afraid of and are living with, whether we want to or not,” he says. “Whatever your challenge — cancer, leukemia or a broken leg — you have a friend with Charlie and Maurice and the monsters and this book.”
“Monster Dance” will be published as a traditional children’s book, but also as a multimedia e-book available on Apple Books, Google Play and IOS App stores in the fall. As all of the Madeleine Editions books are, it merges read-aloud narration, lightly animated illustrations and music — in this case, impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.”
The hard-copy book will be sold exclusively via Kickstarter, and will also include an audio track. It will be published in multiple languages.
With every sale, the collaborators behind “Monster Dance” pledge to donate three masks to health care workers around the world. If the Kickstarter campaign goes over its goal, more masks will be donated.
Copies of the book will also be donated to children’s hospitals across the United States.