NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - On the surface, community life is looking relatively normal nowadays.

Folks are browsing in stores. They’re eating out in restaurants. Getting a trim at the local barber’s. Soaking up the rays at the public pool. Walking their dogs.

You would almost not know that there was a pandemic going on, except for all the colorful masks.

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Everyone’s wearing some kind of facial covering to help slow the coronavirus’s spread. Well, most are, anyway.

If the sight makes you nervous as an adult, just imagine how confusing, if not scary, it can be for our littlest citizens.

Children who are just learning language rely heavily on facial expressions to interpret the world.

Kids also read body language. If all the adults around them are ill at ease, their own anxieties can multiply.

North Salem’s Lauren Rankel knows all about that.

A former preschool teacher, she always had a children’s book or two kicking around in her head. But the mom of two girls never seemed to have the time—or a big enough incentive—to get those ideas down on paper.

Then recently a very dear friend confided in her that her usually cheerful and curious 5-year-old son was becoming too afraid to leave the house.

He couldn’t understand why the postman, or the nice cashier at the grocery store, looked so different. With masks on, they could all be strangers, as far as the boy knew.

Rankel’s goal as an educator has always been to respect and validate children’s feelings, but she wasn’t exactly sure how to help him.

Then a light bulb went off: Make him a character in a book, a book that tackled the subject—in a gentle and upbeat way.

Although a creative person, Rankel can’t draw for beans. So she recruited Elizabeth Barksdale, a multimedia artist from Mahopac she met while taking a class at Railyard Arts Studio in Croton Falls.

Barksdale, a mom herself, enthusiastically agree to help.

They thought that, because the timing was so critical, the book should be published electronically. To make it accessible to all, they also decided to make it free.

“We Can All Be Helpers: Comforting the Fear of Masks During the Time of COVID-19” tells the story of Finn and his pooch, Doodle, as they encounter familiar faces—now masked—on their daily walkies around town.

The real-life “Finn” took to it immediately, Rankel said recently.

First of all, he really loved being a character in a book. But, more importantly, he got the twin messages—that people may look different now, but underneath they’re still the same…and that even the youngest among us can be part of the solution no matter how overwhelming the situation.

One of the nicest parts of the e-book format is that its reader can use a slider bar to show each character with their mask on and with it off.

Part of the COVID-19 fear factor is the loss of control. This feature gives kids a bit of that back, the author and the artist both said.

Rankel said she’s glad to have found a small way to “lift up others” while also gaining some personal comfort.
“We all feel a little bit helpless now,” said Barksdale.

Rankel swears she couldn’t have done it without her artistic friend’s colorful illustrations.

When people share their strengths, beautiful things can happen,” she said.

Barksdale has worked on loads of child-oriented projects and programs for museums and organizations, and her love of nature, science and people-watching is front and center in the book. A little white bird alights gently from a tree and a comical seal bobs in the harbor. The pink posies that Grandma’s tending were inspired by the blooms in her own garden.

Barksdale said she is grateful to be able to find a way to use her skills to help people, especially youngsters. After all, she and her husband, David, who works for Blue Sky Animation Studios, have two of their own: 15-year-old Raven and 13-year-old Davin. 

And although the book’s target audience is 3- to 8-year-olds, everyone can enjoy its simple but powerful message.

Children need to know that experiencing fear, anxiety and anger is perfectly normal. Owning those feelings is the first step toward calming them, Barksdale said.

As far as taking back control and being a responsible citizen goes, wearing a mask in public is, she added, “the one thing we can all do–keep our germs to ourselves.”

Rankel moved to North Salem last fall, but she had been coming to the town all her life to visit her grandmother.

“I always had such peace in my heart when I came here,” she recalled.

When grannie passed away, she and her husband, Stephen, and their youngest daughter, Hailey, 19, moved into the old homestead. The couple’s oldest child, Kiersten, 24, lives in New Orleans, working on coastal restoration projects. Hailey is studying meteorology.

Rankel’s grandmother lived a good long life, probably because she knew how to decompress once in a while. “Some people do yoga; she had a martini at 5 o’clock every day,” Rankel said.

Being on “alert” 24/7 because of the pandemic is causing many to become emotionally exhausted.

“When your primary focus is safety, it can take a lot out of you,” Rankel said.

She is not just talking out of her hat. She teaches professional development courses for fellow educators in STEAM, nature “infusion” and mental health support for students.

But human beings have to let themselves “off the hook” once in a while, she contends.

“Don’t set such lofty goals. It’s OK if all you did today is go out for a walk,” she said.

We also shouldn’t beat others up for being less than perfect, she said.

There may be many reasons why some are not wearing a mask. Public shaming will only cause them to go on the defensive. It’s much better to gently remind them (back to the book again) that they would be doing something for others…and themselves.

In Rankel’s book, being sensitive “empowers” people to make good choices.

“When we know better, we do better,” she said.

To read “We Can All Be Helpers,” visit https://wecanallbehelpers.wixsite.com/wecanallbehelpers.