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UNT couple writes bilingual children’s book to help youth navigate COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led people to navigate a “new normal,” which includes staying home more and wearing masks in public. These changes can be especially difficult for young children, as some are adjusting without a full understanding of current events.

Married couple Dan Heiman, UNT assistant professor of bilingual education and Denton resident, and Martha Samaniego Calderon, CVAD graduate student and Denton resident, worked together to write and illustrate “Behind My Mask,” a children’s book designed to provide youth with information about the pandemic from a socioemotional perspective.

Courtesy Martha Samaniego Calderon

“’Behind My Mask’ is a bilingual children’s book that we put together as a response to COVID-19,” Heiman said. “[It was] specifically designed for the Latino community as a way for students to process their emotions and talk about their identities, specifically thinking about this idea of having to wear a mask.”

The children’s book is designed to promote a critical dialogue between the reader and subjects, Samaniego Calderon said. She also said facial expressions are important in relaying messages when learning another language, so the use of masks has hindered the ability of some people to communicate effectively.

“I think the Latino perspective or the Latino experience that I had as an immigrant woman [inspired me in writing this book],” Samaniego Calderon said. “When the pandemic started and we were recommended to wear masks, in my family I’m a mom [and] we have two kids, and I was going to the grocery and I never realized how complex it was to have a face covering. English is not my first language, so the first time that I went to the grocery store and I had to wear a mask, it was quite an emotional experience for me because it was hard to understand the people.”

The couple said their daughter also has struggled with the adjustment to wearing a mask at all times, so they wrote the book to help ease some of her concerns that other children may also have.

“Our daughter has always been scared of anything covering her face and not being able to see people’s faces,” Samaniego Calderon said. “As educators, picture books have always been part of our lives because of our kids, so we just started thinking, ‘Maybe there’s other people [and] other families [who] are feeling the same way that we’re feeling.’”

The book also places important weight on children discovering who they are. The illustrations in the book bring light to various social topics, such as a mask designed with a butterfly to advocate for DACA and a mask with a rainbow to symbolize the LGBTQ+ community.

“There’s a part of the book on the back that asks the question, ‘Who is behind your mask,’” Samaniego Calderon said. “Instead of asking who you are, this is a way to contextualize who you are with a mask, but underneath the mask. I think it’s a good opportunity for them to reflect on their identity, reflect on their emotions and just create constructive and sometimes uncomfortable dialogue.”

The resources provided in the book have given educators a chance to open up conversations about social issues they have not touched on before.

“I love the post and pre-reading activities that were provided in the book,” said Brent Sanders, fourth-grade teacher and “Behind My Mask” reader. “The opportunity for us all to reflect on what we are feeling behind our own mask was not only engaging but educational. The details in the different [masks] were compelling and excellent conversation starters to engage on other social issues as the teacher deems appropriate.”

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One goal the couple shared when writing the children’s book was to provide children with a platform to learn how to name their emotions and learn about social issues, Heiman said.

“We’ve never written a children’s book, but there’s so much good children’s literature right now,” Heiman said. “Historically, children’s literature was written by white folks and it was about animals, and now you have these books that really talk about issues that are happening. It’s important for kids to be able to talk about these issues, and a children’s book is a great way to open up the space.”

Sanders said “Behind My Mask” gives children a platform to validate their experiences and gain a sense of belonging.

“People should read ‘Behind My Mask’ to understand that what they are feeling during this time is OK and normal,” Sanders said. “My students loved the chance to share their feelings after reading the book and see how we have all been coping during these last few months.”

People interested in purchasing a copy of “Behind My Mask” can visit Blurb.com. In the future, the authors said they hope to work with nonprofits in the metroplex to provide teachers and communities the book free of cost.

Courtesy Martha Samaniego Calderón

Article Originally Published by Maria Lawson on North Texas Daily

Source: North Texas Daily

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