COVID–19 Teacher Diary: Eric Walters' New Book Explores the "Now Normal"

Welcome to the 49th Teachers COVID–19 Teacher Diary, a blog series that takes a look at how teachers are coping with the pandemic.

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Written, published and released during a pandemic: Eric Walters defies traditional publishing norms to create a book for young people living through the COVID-19 era. Don’t Stand So Close to Me, a middle-grade novel about a group of preteens forced into isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, is now available from Orca Book Publishers.

Read more about the book and download the free accompanying teacher’s guide.

Please enjoy this interview with Eric Walters, written by York Region District School Board Teacher-Librarian Geoffrey Ruggero.

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When dealing with an unprecedented time in their lives, where do teachers, parents, and students turn when they need someone to share their experiences? An author, of course. But not just any author — world-renowned Canadian author Eric Walters.

Although apprehensive at first, Eric decided that the best way to help people in this difficult time would be to write a story. Don’t Stand So Close To Me is the story of an eighth grader, and those close to her, dealing with the current pandemic we are all living through. I had the privilege to speak with Eric just a few days before the release of his latest novel. Here’s what he said:

While quarantining at his cottage, Eric was receiving hundreds of emails from parents, teachers, and students, asking him if he was going to write a pandemic story. Initially, his response was “no.” But after days of reading emails, and reflecting, he realized that there was a lot of misinformation being spread, and that young people needed help understanding concepts like ‘exponential growth’ and ‘flattening the curve’. He also felt that “people needed help to see the reality they were living,” and that’s what led him to write Don’t Stand So Close To Me.

The story revolves around eighth grader Quinn Arseneau, her family, friends, and community, as they adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every single person who reads this book will relate to the feelings of the characters. There are many important conversations that take place in the story between young adults, parents and children, and teachers and students. The dialogue strikes deep into the emotions of how we are all feeling right now. Through his characters, Eric lets the reader know that feeling anxious is normal. Crying is normal. Losing sleep is normal. We are all overwhelmed by this, and the best way to get through it is to talk to each other.

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One particular phrase Eric used in our conversation that struck me was what he calls the ‘Now Normal.” He says we are not living a new normal, because next week will be different from this. In three weeks, more facets of life will be different, and in a couple of months, there will be new challenges to face. An important reason he chose to write this story was that he felt “kids need literature for the Now Normal.” They need a story that includes details about quarantining, not being able to shop with their parents, and having to connect with friends and loved ones while keeping a safe distance.

The adults in the story all shed light on the challenges facing front line workers. Eric gets real about what doctors, teachers, and police officers are currently experiencing. The difficulties they are dealing with in trying to help their communities are an important part of the story. As a former teacher, Eric understands that remote learning in no way compares to the learning that happens in a school. The teachers and students in this novel describe the frustrations that we are all currently feeling when it comes to distance learning.

Another moment in the story that really resonates is when Isaac, Quinn’s friend, explains how the things he misses most about school are not moments spent learning the curriculum. Building relationships with peers, participating in extracurricular events, and learning life lessons are the most important part of elementary school. I took a moment to pause and reflect at this point of the book because June is usually a month filled with making memories for eighth graders. A final trip as a class, receiving their yearbook, and of course graduating. It won’t happen the same way this year, and that will be difficult,  but I know educators will do their best to make it memorable.

I closed our discussion by asking Eric what he wants readers to take away from this story. His answer: “Hope.” Eric wants everyone to know that, “We’ll get out of this. There is a way through. Enjoy the moments you can, however small and different than what you may be used to. But we will get through this.” 

Don’t Stand So Close to Me is the ideal read for middle graders this June and beyond as we continue to deal with COVID-19. It will definitely help to get through the final month of school, especially for eighth graders, and who knows, they may be inspired to end their year in a special way, just as the students in the story do.

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Watch Eric Walters read Chapter One of Don't Stand So Close to Me on Bibliovideo, the new YouTube channel all about Canadian kids' books:

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Since jumping at the opportunity to become a Teacher-Librarian, Geoffrey Ruggero has transformed the Learning Commons at a Maple Public School into a modern learning space. His passion for reading and making inspires students to bring their learning to life in many unique ways.

>> See all COVID–19 Crisis Teacher Diary posts

June 3, 2020
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