How do you tell a second-grader she can’t hug her friends at school?

Karen Mumaw, a graduate of the Virginia Tech School of Education, has found a way to do so, in story form. A Title I reading specialist in the King and Queen Elementary School in Mattaponi, Virginia, Mumaw created a storybook to help prepare her students for the protocols they need to follow during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Air Hugs, Not Bear Hugs” tells the story of Peyton, a young panda bear, as she experiences and navigates the challenges and changes brought by the pandemic, including mask wearing, social distancing, coping with mental and emotional stress, and adopting new forms of social interactions.

“I was motivated to write the book by the desire to make my students feel secure despite the many changes in the world around them,” said Mumaw. “I knew they had been confused and their world had been turned upside down. How could I let them know that essentials such as love and security were still there, just in a different form? That’s why I decided to show them Peyton’s struggle and solution, in order to give them a sense of hope.”

Mumaw’s 13-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who attends West Point Middle School, provided the illustrations for the book. An aspiring writer and graphic novelist, Rebecca added a touch of youthfulness to the characterizations. For example, she gave one panda bear riding on the school bus with Peyton a colorful emo haircut and a fun skull mask.

The book was an instant favorite among Mumaw’s students. She said the children seemed to identify with Peyton. The book also caught the attention of Carol Carter, division superintendent of the King and Queen County Public Schools.

 “One of our strategic goals is to maintain a safe and supportive environment that is conducive to learning,” said Carter. “‘Air Hugs, Not Bear Hugs’ helped our students adjust to our mitigation plan for social distancing and mask wearing. We are very proud of Mrs. Mumaw’s work and what she contributes to our division.”

Mumaw is hoping to make her book available to other divisions that haven’t yet opened to in-person instruction.

The storybook is not her first; she often customizes content or creates original stories to satisfy her students’ reading interests and meet their emotional needs. She once created a book about the Titanic for a first-grader who expressed interest in the topic, as there were no existing reading materials that explained the tragedy in an age-appropriate way.

“My storytelling comes out of my love for students and wanting to reach them where they are,” Mumaw said. “I want to bring the excitement and enjoyment of reading to their level, to help them understand.”

A believer in the power of reading, Mumaw traces her passion for serving students in rural areas and underserved communities back to her time in Virginia Tech’s Reading Specialist Program. The program’s leader, Heidi Anne Mesmer, an expert in reading and literacy research, had exposed Mumaw and her peers to students’ experiences in rural schools. The experience inspired Mumaw to work with students and families in a rural division.

“Getting books out to the students and families became a huge push,” Mumaw said. “We’ve done a lot of book distribution in the community. It’s helping the community come together as a whole through sharing the power of reading.”

— Written by Mingyu Li