By Elisabeth Buchwald
Before the pandemic, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Marvel Girl were some of the most well-known superheroes.
But the pandemic shone a spotlight on a different kind of superhero who doesn’t have an alias, the ability to fly or even a cape.
These heroes are frontline workers in the service industry, transportation workers, supermarket cashiers, doctors, nurses and hospital staff.
When schools, child-care centers and businesses closed, and life as we used to know it came to an abrupt standstill, millions of people tuned into Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, updated Americans regularly throughout the pandemic during both the Trump and Biden administrations.
Fauci has, perhaps inevitably, been caught up in the politicization of the pandemic, particularly in relation to business closures and the changing advise on mask wearing .
He told the podcast “Sway” in an interview that aired earlier this month: “It is essential as a scientist that you evolve your opinion and your recommendations based on the data as it evolves.”
“And that’s the reason why I say people who then criticize me about that are actually criticizing science,” he told interviewer Kara Swisher .
After relations soured between Fauci and President Trump, he was appointed as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser last December.
Kate Messner’s biographical picture book, “How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor” (available June 29), offers a portrait of the veteran doctor for children.
Fauci, 80, has worked on the AIDS pandemic, and the Ebola and Zika crises, and served as an adviser to seven U.S. presidents.
In writing the book, which was illustrated by Alexandra Bye, Messner interviewed Fauci over Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +4.26% in late 2020. (Read MarketWatch’s interview with Dr. Fauci here .)
MarketWatch spoke with Messner, who has written several award-winning children’s books, to better understand how Fauci could inspire the next generation of scientists, and how the pandemic will shape their futures.
MarketWatch: Every generation grows up with some kind of tragedy that shapes the course of history. For instance, my generation largely grew up with scars of 9/11 without a complete understanding of the significance of it for generations to come.
Do you think the current generation of kids understands the significance of COVID-19? And what purpose do you hope your book serves for children?
Kate Messner: I don’t think anybody lives through something as traumatic and something that really is an upheaval of everyday life as COVID-19 was, and isn’t changed by that in some way.
We didn’t use to have children’s books that talk about difficult issues. The fact that we do have those stories now is really a huge plus for kids because children have never been unaware of what’s happening in the world. When something stressful or scary or awful happens, it affects everybody.
No matter how much we try to insulate children from bad things that happened in the world, those things are happening, and they’re around them and they’re part of kids’ reality.
I hope this book will be a tool to give real information about vaccines at a time when there’s so much misinformation out there, and to share the story of the life of one scientist and public-health official so that kids get this idea that these experts that they see on the news are not so different from them.
They are people who were curious, and who grew up wanting to make a difference.
MW: How did you get in touch with Dr. Fauci? Why do you think he was willing to take the time to speak with you in November as cases of COVID were exponentially growing?
KM: I emailed him first around March 2020, and then again around September.
When I sent that email I thought it was probably a long shot requesting an interview with basically the busiest man in America.
But I also asked because I understand something that I think Dr. Fauci also understands very well: Education is so essential in the field of public health.
MW: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Fauci when you spoke with him?
KM: The most interesting thing was how easy it is to draw a line from who Anthony Fauci was as a kid to the work that he’s doing today.
When he grew up, he went to a pretty elite prep school, but also lived in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn. He’d drift between worlds, playing stickball and hanging out with the neighborhood guys after school, but then be perfectly at home talking about classic literature and philosophy with the scholars at his high school.
That ability to get along with lots of different people is something that you see in many different points in Dr. Fauci’s career — not just with the COVID-19 pandemic but going all the way back to the 80s in the AIDS crisis.
He would have protesters outside his office who were furious about the government’s lack of response [to the AIDS crisis] and Dr. Fauci was one of the first people who actually initiated dialogues, and said, ‘Oh come on in, let’s talk.’
MW: Like any other public figure, Fauci has received his share of criticism for his handling of the pandemic.
Do you worry that negative coverage of him might cause children to think twice about pursuing careers in the field or potentially give them a false sense of what the typical public-health career is like?
KM: It’s kind of a strange thing, to be honest, to see a scientist and public servant turn into a lightning rod for the far right in the way that Dr. Fauci has.
Dr. Fauci has been at the helm of NIAID for over forty years and has advised seven presidents — four Republicans and three Democrats — so it’s unfortunate that his work has been politicized by some people.
We’ve seen an increase in anti-science attitudes in recent years, and I do hope that turns around so that kids who want to pursue careers in science and public health aren’t discouraged.
MW: Children’s books tend to have a very clear beginning, middle and end. What was it like to write about an end to the pandemic while we are still so far from the finish line?
KM: When I started working on this book, none of the vaccines had been approved yet, and we didn’t know what the end of the pandemic would look like.
By the time we were wrapping up work on the text in January of 2021, it was pretty clear that we were we were going to start to see some improvement in the situation.
Dr. Fauci had been vaccinated, President Biden had been vaccinated, my mom and dad had been vaccinated — there was just a general feeling of hope that we might be about to turn a corner.
So that’s where the story ends, on a note of hope, with the approval of the vaccines. It’s the end of this chapter, at least.