The global pandemic has brought about unique challenges as people learn to navigate public spaces while taking precautionary health measures such as wearing face masks. The pandemic can be especially difficult for children to cope with as their daily routines and understanding of the world are altered.
Martha Samaniego Calderón, a University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design graduate student, soon realized the pandemic’s impact on her children when her 7-year-old daughter expressed she was a little fearful and apprehensive of seeing people with masks.
Adding to that apprehension is the fact that Samaniego Calderón is an immigrant, and her first language is not English.
“As immigrants we always have to deal with identity, and when I’m out in public — with the political climate in our country — I’m in survival mode,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma around immigrants, and to me it’s important to read people’s faces so I know if it’s a safe space for me. You can tell a lot by facial expressions — if the person next to you is comfortable with your presence or if you better go away.”
When she and her children went to the grocery store at the start of the pandemic, she said they felt frustrated by how masks obscure people’s faces. Samaniego Calderón decided the best way to address her daughter’s concerns and create a dialogue about the physical and metaphorical implications of wearing masks was through a picture book.
“We started thinking as educators how to create a book to help kids or parents that might feel the same way so parents could talk to their kids about the pandemic and importance of wearing a mask while acknowledging their emotions behind the mask and how they can process those [emotions],” she said.
Along with her husband, Dan Heiman, a professor in the UNT College of Education, she self-funded and created Behind My Mask, Detras de me cubrebocas, a bilingual Spanish and English education book.
The book’s plot addresses how people disguise their emotions and identities and is intended to help children navigate how they and others express their own identities while promoting the use of masks.
“We feel [the book] is a starting point for a conversation not only around our masks and our identities and emotions, but around the current sociopolitical climate that is very complex,” Heiman said. “Students will have the opportunity to engage around emotions that they’re feeling and what their mask could look like.”
The book includes unfinished pages children can use to draw their face masks and the identities and emotions they conceal.
“What makes this book unique is that the reader has the power to finish the story the way they want,” Samaniego Calderón said. “There are many pages where if you read the book on different days, you can put different emotions. The book has the potential to go any direction according to who’s the reader, regardless of race.”
Heiman said he thinks it’s especially important to consider the book’s contribution to literature because it is inclusive of minority communities and can be used to address identity in a variety of circumstances.
“Statistically, children’s books are written by white communities,” he said. “In the Black Lives Matter movement, you have emotions coming to the surface that need to be discussed in classrooms. We’re seeing a lot of masks now that are sending out a message to people around their identities and emotions at a time that is very difficult but hopeful.”
The books are printed on-demand for anyone to purchase for $13 on www.blurb.com. The couple also created a blog at behindmycubrebocas.blogspot.com with additional educational resources, such as guiding questions for classroom or family discussions and print-out coloring sheets for children to draw their masks and their expressions underneath the masks.
Samaniego Calderón said she and her husband hope a nonprofit will help purchase and distribute the books to families and schools.
“If there’s going to be face-to-face learning or going back to school, face masks might be required,” she said. “We hope this book can be used as a starting point because it’s important to acknowledge the emotions right behind the masks.”