REVIEW: When the World Stays Inside Sends an Uncomfortable Message

When the World Stays Inside Feature Cover by Sara Panchaud

It’s a difficult time to be a caregiver for a young child. Finding ways for children to safely socialize and play and to understand why the pandemic has driven the world into quarantine is a huge task. As a librarian, I wish I had more books to give caregivers to help. Writer Mikey Woz and illustrator Sara Panchaud have attempted to create such a book with When the World Stays Inside, a picture book celebrating all the ways we can have fun when we can’t go out and play. Unfortunately, the messaging of the story misses the mark.

When the World Stays Inside

Mikey Woz (writer) Sara Panchaud (illustrator)
Two Fools Publishing
June 8, 2020

When the World Stays Inside cover via Mikey Woz and Sara Panchaud

Visually, When the World Stays Inside is quite solid. Sara Panchaud’s illustrations are bright, clear, and often rely on primary colors – perfect for the youngest of readers’ eyes. Her pleasant, fuzzy figures have simple, easy to understand facial expressions as well as fun, goofy hairstyles. All of them wear tall yellow socks, which is a cute detail that connects each figure to the others.

Both the visuals and rhyming text of the story are Dr. Seuss inspired; this book seems intended to be a successor of Cat in the Hat. The classic story about children stuck inside on a rainy day who are visited by a chaotic, fun-obsessed cat echoes in the image of a mustachioed figure losing their grip on a towering layer cake, which falls into the next page. Most of the illustrations depict an inside activity meant to inspire children, or to celebrate the fun that can be had indoors. Adult and child figures have tea parties inside blanket forts, read on the couch, dance, daydream, and throw paper airplanes. Panchaud makes many of these activities look warm and exciting. An illustration of a figure dancing and singing into a spoon while their perplexed cats look on is a particular standout; it’s silly and full of life, and might make you laugh out loud.

The lettering style is a great complement to the images; it’s cute, purple, and all lowercase, which makes the words on the page feel very personal. Similarly, the overall message of the story is quite clear – there are many games we can play inside, activities and tasks to complete, and even ways to stay connected to our loved ones. When the World Stays Inside is clearly a celebration of these kinds of rainy day activities.

DIllustration of a fuzzy person singing into a spoon as their cats look on.

Whenever I read a picture book I consider whether I would use it as a story time read aloud, and When the World Stays Inside unfortunately doesn’t make the cut. The rhyming text lapses into awkward phrases that cut the flow of the poetry and trip me up as I read – not ideal for a story time setting. If I am going to read a longer book or a wordier one, I need it to have good rhythm, or built-in opportunities for audience interaction, and this story lacks both. My biggest issue, however, is with the deeper messaging in the story surrounding the pandemic. The book addresses the reason why we are all staying inside only briefly, and its explanation is confusing. According to Woz, the world is in a state of quarantine because “…we don’t want to get sick. And from inside we’ll wonder, how did it happen so quick?”

The next page containing text jumps into activities we can do while stuck inside, and doesn’t clarify what exactly happened “so quick,” or what we’re wondering about. Here, children are likely to disrupt the story with questions – get sick how? If it can happen quickly does that mean we’ll get sick? Because the book offers no real explanation, it feels easy to put it down and instead try to have a more meaningful conversation. Ideally, a book about lock down during the pandemic would take a moment to build in some kind of information that allows a caregiver to stick with the story. One of the big pieces of the conversation caregivers are having with children addresses wearing masks to keep others from getting sick, but the text only implies that we should care about ourselves.

Woz ends the story with the claim that “we will cherish that time that the world stayed inside” – a sentiment echoed in the book’s dedication, which is “to the 2020 pandemic: thank you for the time to play, learn, love, craft, move, appreciate, and reflect. Thank you for reminding us that we are all human.” As already mentioned, this book has a clear purpose: to celebrate the ways we can have fun and enjoy time spent inside, and to encourage children to look positively on their time stuck at home. It’s not necessarily the job of this book to thoroughly address the difficult things children are likely experiencing right now – fear, confusion, grief and loss. However, thanking the pandemic for an extended rainy day scenario takes positivity too far. We are still surviving a pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have gotten sick and died, and will get sick and die. Children are perceptive. They can’t be lied to or convinced that we’re just staying inside to have fun and reflect; they know that something is very, very wrong, and we can’t wipe away their negative emotions or difficult experiences with tone deaf positivity.

When the World Stays Inside Dedication from Mikey Woz and Sara Panchaud

Will this book help children feel better about being cooped up inside? Maybe — especially if they don’t care about those first, unexplained lines about getting sick. However, the concept of having a dedication that thanks the pandemic — and the fact that the final page paints this era of pandemic-induced quarantine with an entirely positive brush — make me very, very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to endorse that message by using this book in story time.

If I were reading this to children, I would want to talk to them about their feelings, and make sure they know that all the hard, negative things they are feeling are real and valid. If you do want to read this book with children, it would help to pair it with another book that addresses taking steps to keep other people safe and healthy. Hopefully more books discussing these topics are released soon.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.