Two weeks into the COVID-19 (née coronavirus) pandemic and its attendant doldrums, I noticed some A-list singers were performing via Instagram from the discomfort of their homes. Chris Martin and John Legend were among the first to sign up to the One World: Together At Home initiative in mid-March, and more followed until it became the 100-artist global streaming event, dubbed the ‘Living Room Live Aid’, on 18 April.
Here was proof that lockdown was just as testing for everyone, regardless of wealth and status. Of course, confinement in a sprawling LA palace is somewhat easier than house arrest in a downtown apartment, but I couldn’t ignore the sense that we were all in this together somehow.
Watching Martin, Legend and co. do their unpolished thing at home in their sweats told me that hard-to-reach celebrities were more accessible than usual. Like us mortals, their diaries had been voided and they were itching for something purposeful to do.
As a parent who works in and for the publishing industry, I thought it would be brilliant to ask children’s authors to read their works online. When I was a kid there was this thing on TV called Jackanory, where an actor would read beloved children’s stories, often from a comfy-looking armchair in a cosy living room. I’ve never forgotten how those readings made me feel: reassured, transported, dreamy. Jackanory’s goal was to stimulate interest in reading, and it sure worked on me.
I believed we could leverage the IPA’s worldwide publishing network to do something useful for children and their worn-out parents during isolation. Our goals would be:
ENTERTAIN: Build excitement around reading and encourage kids to see books as a fun, healthy and constructive way to make use of their time in confinement.
INSPIRE: Bring children closer to their favourite books to show them that even when the world is off limits, nothing can stop them exploring it with their minds.
COMFORT: Provide a special moment that families can look forward to and share.
INFORM: Deliver vital information about health actions and behaviours during the COVID-19 emergency.
Things moved like lightning. On Thursday 26 March I discussed the idea with my boss, IPA Vice-President Bodour Al Qasimi, before taking it to the rest of the IPA leadership. In the background, I was also pitching it to a friend with clout at the World Health Organization. Hours later he told me it was a goer, and to my surprise that UNICEF was also ready to jump in. I was dumbfounded that two giant UN agencies better known for bureaucracy than agility could so rapidly commit to such a partnership based on goodwill. Apparently, even the usually faceless institutions were in the boat with the mortals and celebrities; COVID-19, the great leveller, was already rewriting the rules.
The following Monday we appealed to the IPA’s international network of publishers’ associations for help to recruit authors, and got an overwhelmingly positive response. To her infinite credit and our immense gratitude, Elisabetta Dami, the Italian creator of the Geronimo Stilton empire (200 million-odd copies sold in 50 languages) agreed to be our first reader. She was perfect: an international favourite from Milan, one of the worst-hit cities in a country so horribly ravaged by the virus.
So on 2 April, International Children’s Book Day, a week after conception, Read The World was born.
Since then, we’ve had readings by Cressida Cowell (UK children’s laureate who wrote ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ and ‘The Wizards of Once’); Fatima Sharafeddine (a leading children’s writer in the Arab world); Claire Culliford (emerging SDG Book Club author); Roger Mello (Brazilian author-illustrator, winner of 2014 Hans Christian Andersen award); Andy Stanton (creator of Mr Gum and numerous other high-selling titles) and Ursula Dubosarsky (current Australian Children’s Laureate). At the time of writing, we also have firm commitment from the legendary creator of the Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and stacks of other top-selling titles, Julia Donaldson.
And on 9 April, the WHO, UNICEF and around 50 other partners co-launched a new storybook to support children’s mental health and psychosocial needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Called ‘My Hero is You – how kids can fight COVID-19’, the book had its first public reading - in association with Read The World – by Howard Donald, a pop star from diehard British boy band, Take That.
The success of Read The World, and the IPA’s partnership with WHO and UNICEF, has been stunning: on the day of Howard Donald’s reading, #ReadTheWorld was trending on Instagram with close to 12,000 posts, while the video has been viewed 20,000 times.
How long the project will run depends on the duration of lockdown. But its continued success hinges on our ability to continuously engage new authors (and illustrators) who can appeal to different audiences and language markets.
Stay safe, stay positive and keep reading.