‘One big virtual love-in’: how children’s book authors are creating online sanctuaries

The children’s author and illustrator wunderkind Oliver Jeffers has started a stay-at-home story time where he reads a book a day live on Instagram. And they are pure magic.

Jeffers, in quarantine in Belfast, is reading a story a day, having started with his first ever book How to Catch a Star.

According to Jeffers, “[This is] for all you folks stuck at home in the coming weeks due to Covid, I will be reading one of my books every weekday, and talking about some of the things that went into making it. We are all at home, but none of us are alone. Let’s be bored together.”


A paper craft activity, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, who is hosting children’s workshops on Instagram. It reads 'Have a sheet of paper read for tonight's story time' and shows a piece of paper and a paper plane.

A paper craft activity, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, who is hosting children’s workshops on Instagram

In this social-isolating time his live reads make you feel part of an intimate family Skype call, complete with interruptions from his young children.

And judging by the tsunami of love hearts, emojis and adoring comments, Jeffers clearly has quite the fan club. Each day, thousands of children and their parents around the globe tune in on IGTV to commune with their idol for what is one big virtual love-in.

His stories are usually about a boy – “Once there was a boy … ” – and the simple sparsity of his language captures your attention immediately, as you know you are in for a good yarn. The books are illustrated in his signature crayon and watercolour style, and full of little visual clues that make them a fun read for all ages. The plots are adult-friendly too, with quirky and often implausible storylines. They have a wicked sense of the bizarre yet are full of humanity.

The boy (and often his penguin or mouse) go on extraordinary yet ordinary adventures, but the real story is in how they deal with feelings. Jeffers doesn’t shy away from hard emotions (sad, lonely, scared) but importantly, offers uplifting, universal moments of connection, love and friendship – which makes his tales feel very real at their core.

In his fifth quarantine read, The Great Paper Caper, he had listeners come prepared with a piece of paper, a cryptic clue from this detective story plot. The paper is used to create paper planes, which Jeffers duly made and talked through with his young listeners so they could make their own at home.

With his live reads, Jeffers has created a calm sanctuary amid the fear, and it feels like a very safe, warm and cosy place to spend some time.

You can tune in weekdays on Instagram at 6pm GMT, 2pm EST, 11am PST.

Here are some other authors and organisations moving into the virtual literary world for kids.

Boredom busters just for girls

The good folk at Talu Tales have joined forces with some of our favourite authors and it’s just the feel-good story we need to soothe the soul, sparkle the heart and inspire the imagination.

As the Talu team see it, “The world is a bit topsy-turvy at the moment, and many of us are feeling the hits from cancelled events, lots of work, kids being cooped up at home and being isolated from friends and a regular routine. Today we’re celebrating all things community, reading, creativity and storytelling. Pop your head in when you need a little pep-up and we’ll be here all day!”

Talu Tales is a fantasy story world that inspires kids to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They are on a mission to close the gender gap one story at a time, with stories that feature female characters in non-stereotypical plotlines. So expect to spark some future female leaders with these empowering role models who embark on fantastical adventures.

They released little story surprises for 11 hours straight. You can access these surprises from their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels. Here are some of them.

Incredible Freedom Machine, read aloud by Kirli Saunders
In this story of exploration and breaking boundaries, a young girl uncovers her very own freedom machine, a vehicle that carries her to all kinds of wondrous places. A proud Gunai woman, with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people, Saunders currently resides on Dharawal country.

All Bodies Are Good Bodies, read aloud by Charlotte Barkla
A book which is about celebrating awesome incredible bodies that do unbelievable things. Like digesting food. What a wild crazy thing. Charlotte is an Adelaide-based writer who worked as a civil engineer and physics teacher but now creates picture books. And perhaps if you ask her nicely she’ll share a cool physics fact!

My Dog Bigsy, read aloud by Alison Lester
A book she wrote about her dog, Bigsy, Alison’s picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and celebrate the differences that make them special.

Books and live cartoons with Mac Barnett

Mac Barnett’s Book Club show is an interactive treat. He’s created mini themed shows that have regular time slots kids can tune into each day. They are part live theatre, part comedy skit, part craft lesson. They score high on the entertainment value and regularly feature surprise guests. Someone needs to get this guy his own TV show (wait this is IGTV, so I guess he’s made his own).

Tune in for: chapter books After Dark where Barnett styles himself as a TV host reminiscent of the 1950s, where “Each night I’ll pour a glass of milk, put on my most comfortable tuxedo and read a chapter of my memoir, Mac B, Kid Spy #1: Mac Undercover, illustrated by @mikelowerystudio. New chapters go up about 5:00 California time and they’ll stay up on my IGTV till the end of the ‘school year’.”

If cartooning is your thing, Mac has teamed up with his oldest friend and racquetball arch-nemesis, @shawnharri5, to create what they claim to be the world’s first “live cartoon”. In his words “How is that possible? What does that even mean? Does Shawn own a dog, and if he does, is that dog super-cute? Stay home tomorrow and find out!”

Going by the Instagram stories of budding cartoonists joining in on the live drawing, and duly donning their hats (it’s a Barnett thing), Mac has hit the sweet spot with his old-school charm and off-beat humour and the fans keep coming back for more.

Stay-at-home readings and art class with Chris Haughton

Chris Haughton’s book reads are more live art tutorials for budding young illustrators, some with singalongs. He’s packaged resources on his site to download and join in at home. His cut-out stencils and colouring-in templates featuring his signature collages are a stay-at-home schooling parent’s dream.

Stayathome #2 had viewers learning how to make his “a bit lost owl” out of paper from the stencils available online.

As Haughton says: “Tune in to meet George himself. There will be cake. We will be well behaved. And of course bring a pen and paper for a bit of drawing afterwards … I will show how I make my art and we will make a collage together.”

His books are simple and naive in style but feature stories with a social conscience where themes such as climate change, gender and racial equality are woven in as part of the narrative.

To keep the good vibe going, he’s offering free downloads of his app Hat Monkey which includes music and dance routines.

Tune in on Haughton’s Facebook page at 5pm GMT every weekday.

  • Let us know if you have discovered any other authors doing this, and we’ll update the list.

The Guardian

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