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Reasons to be cheerful: poetry and stories to give hope to adults and children alike


Children’s author Katherine Rundell introduces original poems, stories and illustrations by the likes of Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Axel Scheffler

We have always given each other strange advice in times of plague. During the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793, it was thought you could purify the air by firing muskets, both indoors and out, and for a while it became impossible to go for a walk without some earnest citizen shooting you in the ear. In London in 1665, it was said that powdered dried toad would protect against the terrifying sweep of death. Tobacco was used to ward off bubonic plagues, with toddlers puffing at pipes at the kitchen table.

But there has been good advice, too, and that advice is more constant across history: we have always told each other to tell stories and try not to despair. Tomaso del Garbo, a Florentine physician working during the 14th-century Black Death, wrote that those who could not “flee the pestilence” must “use songs and games and pleasant stories that do not exhaust the body”. Writing at the same time, Nicholas de Burgo urged that people “take care to be able to be joyful … listen to lullabies, stories and melodies”. A 15th-century revised edition of Aldobrandino of Siena’s Régime du Corps, which circulated widely during epidemic outbreaks, told its readers to “read joyful and strange things”.This prescription was down, in part, to the ancient Galenic idea that fear and sorrow could alter the temperature of a person’s body and thereby render them more prone to sickness: but it was also a sense that, in the midst of horror, we need to be transported.

The world has so many possibilities that despair is misplaced – our universe is shot through with the unexpected

Emily Gravett is the illustrator and author of Meerkat Mail and The Odd Egg (Two Hoots).

Axel Scheffler is the illustrator of The Gruffalo, Zog and Room on the Broom (Pan Macmillan). His latest work is Coronavirus, a free book explaining the pandemic to children.

Rob Biddulph is the illustrator of books including Blown Away, GRRRRR! and Odd Dog Out (HarperCollins Children’s Books).

Chris Haughton is the illustrator and author of Oh No, George! and A Bit Lost (Walker Books).

Steven Lenton is the illustrator of Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam by Tracey Corderoy (Nosy Crow), as well as books by David Baddiel and Frank Cottrell-Boyce.

Jim Smith is the illustrator and author of the Barry Loser series and the Super Weird Mysteries series (Egmont).

Tom Percival is the illustrator and author of Ruby’s Worry and Perfectly Norman (Bloomsbury Children’s Books).

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