Children and Covid-19 One: (In)visibility, creativity and rainbows

This blog started before the real impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated measures were being felt in the UK. Since lockdown, the Centre for Childhood Cultures discussion group has decided to try to document and discuss the ways that children and childhood cultures are being represented in relation to COVID-19, and are representing and responding to the pandemic.

Initially it seemed that children were largely invisible in UK newspaper and broadcast media’s coverage of the pandemic. This appears to be changing, with news broadcasters such as Channel 4 News starting to give airtime to children’s voices. Social media, meanwhile, has proved a richer source. The last couple of months have, though, seen a deluge of child-focused publications and media that has tried to explain the pandemic to children. We are also starting to see attempts to collect and archive children’s responses to the pandemic and, to a lesser extent, children’s creative output.[1] Future blog entries will hopefully draw out some of the particularities in how COVID-19 childhood is being imagined by adults and children, and how COVID-19 is affecting childhood culture. The remainder of this blog piece will trace some potential lines of enquiry, identified in our discussion so far, into children and creativity, focusing on the image of the rainbow.

The use of the rainbow emerged shortly after the UK went into lockdown, seemingly as a grassroots initiative. Children, in particular, were encouraged to create rainbows and display them in the window or door as a symbol of hope and solidarity (and the V&A Museum of Childhood are now collecting examples).

In many ways, the choice of a rainbow seems an inclusive and democratic choice. The fact that children are taught about the colours of the rainbow at a young age, and that not much skill is needed to create them, means that children of all ages could participate. Rainbows can be made inexpensively from a variety of different mediums, lowering (although not removing) barriers to participation. The creation and display of rainbows, while presumably initially an adult initiative, allows children to create and participate in collective response to the pandemic, connecting and expressing solidarity with their neighbours and with key workers.

It also, although in uneven and unequal ways due to differences in housing, makes children’s presence visible to the street at a time when children’s presence in public spaces has become limited. Some children and adults have taken this further, using chalk to draw rainbows, messages and games on the streets. In this way, children have reclaimed the street as a space for creative play.

Chalk drawings by Lucy Stenning and Alison Stenning. Photo by Alison Stenning.

The use of the rainbow by commercial and governmental organisations, in contrast, has proved more problematic. East Sussex County Council have used rainbows in an attempt to support children. Their magazine site ‘Your East Sussex’ has created downloadable and printable Certificates of Achievement for parents to give to or display to their children. These certificates feature a large rainbow and congratulate children for ‘staying at home, raising our spirits and making us smile’. The posters have, according to the site, been downloaded 13,000 times and been copied by other local councils. While in no way as troubling as examples of co-option of the Pride flag by other organisations, these certificates offer a distinctly different view of childhood than the homemade rainbows. The message on the certificates separates children from the rest of the household, and wider community, and narrowly designates their role as that of prompting smiles. There is little recognition here of the multiplicity of roles that children may perform in their everyday and pandemic life. Interestingly, in this instance the use of the rainbow makes the certificate more rather than less exclusionary: as the rainbows are in colour, the certificate will only look good printed on a colour printer. This also means there is no space created in these certificates for children’s participation, adaptation and creativity.

Children’s creativity itself can also be co-opted in somewhat surprising ways. The campaign #RainbowsforNightingale asked for children’s laminated artwork to be sent to the new Nightingale Hospital in London to decorate their walls. The call for ‘messages of hope’ was made on social media and picked up by the Sun and others, only for the hospital to announce that this was not an official request and that they had no means of handling physical artwork. Children’s artwork submitted digitally is now on display in some Nightingale Hospitals, but the event prompts questions about how, and by whom, children’s creativity is mobilised, about what kinds of creativity are deemed appropriate and about where children’s creative presence is wanted or unwanted during a pandemic.

Picture of back of a painted rainbow displayed on glass panel of a balconey with the names Raphael and Emil showing as written backwards.
Rainbow artwork by Emil Vaclavik-Magnan and Raphael Vaclavik-Magnan. Photo by Kiera Vaclavik.

About the author: Dr Lucie Glasheen is a Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London. Her research sits at the intersection of literary studies, cultural history and historical geography. Lucie recently completed her PhD at Queen Mary, Children’s play, urban spaces and the transformation of East London in text, image and film 1930-1939.


[1] E.g. Irish Times (2020) ‘Staying inside: Children write about their coronavirus experience’, 18th April. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/staying-inside-children-write-about-their-coronavirus-experience-1.4226127 (Access date 27th April 2020); Slate (2020), ‘What Living Through a Pandemic Is Like for Kids’, 20 March. Available at: https://slate.com/human-interest/2020/03/kids-diaries-coronavirus-pandemic.html (Access date 27th April 2020). Iqbal, N. (2020) ‘Britain’s lockdown diaries expose gulf in wellbeing between rich and poor’, Guardian: Communities, 26th April. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/26/britains-lockdown-diaries-expose-gulf-in-wellbeing-between-rich-and-poor (Access date 27th April 2020).

Brave New Worlds

On Tuesday 3rd March the Centre for Childhood Cultures held a creative writing workshop and book launch of Charlotte Byrne’s debut YA novel Folked Up.

Charlotte Byrne sitting behind table with copies of Folked Up books and posters, and sign with prices on.
Charlotte Byrne with Folked Up, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.

After introductions, the evening started with a creative writing workshop led by Charlotte which focused on world building. As Charlotte pointed out, world building is not only relevant for fantasy novels, but a key part of all fiction.

Charlotte asked us to think, in small groups, about a fictional world we would like to build. Ideas included a world of lost or obsolete things, a village of bog-peasants facing an unknown ecological threat and Majorca during the Spanish Civil war. This prompted us to think about how and why authors choose to build certain worlds, whether they be fantasy or ‘real’, historical or present day. We discussed the different kinds of challenges in creating fantasy or ‘real’ worlds. Fantasy worlds might require the creation of social hierarchies, language, geographies, food and culture. Real worlds on the other hand, specifically historical worlds, might require a lot of research to get right.

We explored how to create a world in fiction that feels real and compelling, reflecting on the importance of sensory detail and character viewpoint. Charlotte shared the ‘four C’s’ she uses to judge her own writing: Clarity, credibility, consistency and character. We ended the writing workshop by crafting sentences describing our worlds from the perspective of an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. The workshop made me think about writing as a collaborative as well as an individual process.

Participants of creative writing workshop talking.
Lucie Glasheen and Abigail Fine at creative writing workshop. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.
Participants of creative writing workshop.
Participants of creative writing workshop. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.
Charlotte talking to participants of creative writing workshop.
Charlotte talking to participants of creative writing workshop. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.
Participant of creative writing workshop laughing, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.

I wondered about how it would feel to try and write a story set in the world of my own doctoral research (1930s East London). Initially, this seemed far more daunting than writing a fantasy world. As a historian I think I would find it hard not to over-qualify factual details, or feel pressure to conduct huge amounts of research, at the expense of a story. Yet storytelling could also offer great potential as a historical method. Storytelling requires that the author moves away from the distanced and supposedly neutral position of the academic. My own research looks at the worlds created in text, image and film narratives aimed at children and created by children, so creating children’s fiction set in this period would be an intriguing way of further exploring the role of narratives.

Close-up of writing
Close-up of writing, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.
Workshop notes
Workshop notes, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.

In the second part of the session Abigail Fine led a Q&A with Charlotte about writing Folked Up. Charlotte reflected on her desire to represent working class voices in YA fiction and on her adaptation of ballads, an oral and working-class tradition. The representation of working-class vs middle-class children is something that has come up a number of times in the Centre for Childhood Cultures discussion group, but Charlotte raised some important points about language, speech and culture which would be worth looking at further. This also prompts the question as to whether the YA book market is currently more or less accommodating to working-class authors and characters than the children’s book market.

Charlotte also reflected on the labour of writing a YA novel as well as doing a PhD (!) and her strategy for getting published (persistence). She revealed that she is not done with the world of Folked Up and is working on a sequel, so watch this space…

Charlotte Byrne during Q&A
Charlotte Byrne during Q&A, Folked Up book launch, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.
Close up of Charlotte's hands signing copies of Folked Up
Signing copies of Folked Up, 2020. Copyright Yellow Ladybird Photography.

You can order a copy of Folked Up on Crystal Peake’s website.

About the author: Dr Lucie Glasheen is a Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London. Her research sits at the intersection of literary studies, cultural history and historical geography. Lucie recently completed her PhD at Queen Mary, Children’s play, urban spaces and the transformation of East London in text, image and film 1930-1939.