RARITAN, NJ - Raritan Borough resident Emily Bengels wanted to create something to help children dealing with the quarantine from coronavirus, and, as a reading teacher, she figured she could use the arts to support them – and from there was born “Corona-Alona.”
“In the beginning of April, we began to realize that the quarantine wasn’t going to be just a few weeks,” she said. “It was scary for everyone.”
Bengels is a reading teacher for young children, and she said that while sitting in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables, they would tell her about their experiences before and after reading a book.
“I realized that coronavirus was probably the longest word many of them knew, and such a powerful one,” she said. “I also realized their experience of the quarantine was outwardly different from mine, and that of other adults I know, but that the fear, sadness, loneliness and uncertainty was the same.”
Then, when one boy told her his birthday was canceled because of coronavirus, she knew she needed to create something to help him and other children like him.
“Since then, the world has opened up a bit, but we still deal with the same uncertainty,” she said. “We can still use the arts to support one another. We still need to focus on what we are gaining from additional time at home.”
Her storybook, “Corona-Alona,” shows what a family can do when the playgrounds are closed, including reading with family members, cooking together, playing games and making music. The story is told from the point of view of an empathetic house, and it encourages children to use art to say thank you, to reach out to grandparents and to cheer up neighbors.
Bengels said the part about family was added in last when she found that connection with extended family has become a big issue.
“My parents yearn for their grandchildren,” she said. “My nephew, who just turned five, was able to have the fire trucks come to celebrate his birthday, but couldn’t see his grandparents.”
Bengels added in about having a connection with family in other households.
She shared the book with community members, and then realized it could help a larger audience. She brought in illustrator Hannah Mills, of Whitehouse Station, and together they completed the book, which was available digitally June 19, and as a paperback book July 15.
They have also put together a website about the power of arts, at coronaalona.weebly.com.
Bengels said she has, in the past, published a book of poetry, called “(un)Standardized,” and she has written a few musical plays that were performed by children.
Education-wise, Bengels studied romance languages at Bryn Mawr, and did a Masters in Language Education at Rutgers University and another in gifted education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is now a doctoral candidate in Holocaust and Genocide studies at Gratz.
Her mother, she said, is an English professor at Hofstra University, and reading together is something they do as a family, so the next logical step was writing.
Bengels said she has now been toying with the idea of writing the story of COVID from the point of view of a refrigerator, but it hasn’t happened yet while she is working on her dissertation.
“I’m sure I will write more books, though,” she said. “Lately, I’ve been interviewing my mother about her experiences advocating ‘unusual’ children in the schools, and I’d like to share her wisdom with the world.”
Bengels moved to Raritan in 2009, after living in Lebanon Township.
“I chose Raritan because it’s a small, diverse community in a convenient area,” she said. “It’s close to the canal, and has lovely places to walk. I like hearing the trains and feeling like we are where the trains sleep at night.”
Aside from her writing and studies, Bengels is a kindergarten through first grade reading intervention teacher at Whitehouse School in Readington Township, and teaches Spanish at Raritan Valley Community College. She also is the music director for the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County.
With “Corona-Alona,” Bengels said she hopes people understand that good can come from change.
“I hope they realize that they should enjoy the people in their lives,” she said. “I hope they also explore ways to help one another through the arts.”