Dr. Fauci’s Life Illustrated In A New Book For Kids
Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he’s the subject of a children’s book too: Dr. Fauci: How a Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. The book takes us back to Fauci’s childhood filled with games of baseball in the streets of Brooklyn, bike rides to deliver medications for his family’s pharmacy, and his long history of asking questions about how the world works.
Author Kate Messner talks to Ira about the surprises she found in Fauci’s life story, the value of showing kids that scientists were once children too, and why curiosity is such an important value to teach children.
Check out a preview of the new book!
Kate Messner is author of Dr. Fauci: How A Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. She’s based on Lake Champlain, in New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Long before he was a doctor making weekly press briefings about a strange new virus called COVID-19, Anthony Fauci was a kid, just like any other. He rode his bike, he played sports with his friends, and he asked a lot of questions.
The childhood of the boy who would grow up to become known as Dr. Fauci is the subject of a new book for children. The book traces how young Anthony learned to be a curious and patient problem solver, and how he used those skills in his life as a doctor, and later as a sleuth of infectious diseases like AIDS, Ebola, and COVID-19. Children’s book author Kate Messner is with me. The book is called Dr. Fauci, How a Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. Welcome Kate.
KATE MESSNER: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here with you.
IRA FLATOW: Tell me how you chose Dr. Fauci as a subject for a book?
KATE MESSNER: Well, to be honest with you, I was working on a completely different book in spring of 2020 called The Next Scientist all about what the childhoods were like for people who grew up to make contributions in science and public health. So as part of the research for that book I had sent emails to a number of living scientists asking about their upbringing, and Dr. Fauci was among those.
And what he wrote to me was, “I was not thinking very much about science as a young boy. I mostly played a lot of sports, stickball, and other fun games in the streets of Brooklyn where my family lived. I was a pretty good athlete and loved baseball and basketball. My interest in science and health came about when I was delivering prescriptions for my father’s pharmacy. I would deliver medicines to people on my Schwinn bike, and in doing so I became aware of illness, the need for medications, and the fact that people needed such medical help, and those impressions stuck with me.”
And then he went on to talk about playing basketball, being the captain of the basketball team in high school, and eventually finding his way to medicine. But that story of a young Tony Fauci, playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn and riding around the neighborhood at nine or 10 years old on his Schwinn bicycle delivering prescriptions, as a children’s book author I could immediately see the illustrations that might go with that story. And I realized, because I do a lot of Zoom visits with classrooms and libraries and talk with a lot of kids, that they were very curious about this man that they saw on the news every single night in the early days of the pandemic.
He’d be offering facts and comfort at a time when those things were hard to find. And so that was what made me think that there could be a separate book just about Dr. Fauci’s life, mostly for the purpose of inspiring kids who might want to be our scientists and problem solvers of tomorrow.
IRA FLATOW: Could you give us a little sample? Could you read a bit for us from the book?
KATE MESSNER: Sure, let me read you the first pages here. “Anthony Fauci was always asking questions, wondering about the world, from the tropical fish in his bedroom aquarium, to the vast oceans of sea life, the blazing stars and spinning planets in the pictures of his encyclopedias. How did it all work? With a wide open mind, Anthony searched for answers. His family encouraged that curiosity.
When the nuns at his school said you had to go to mass each week in order to get in to heaven, Anthony wondered about his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who spent his Sundays over steaming pots of pasta and bubbling red sauce. Anthony asked his grandfather why he didn’t go to church. “When I make you all the good food that’s my mass,” his grandfather answered. “So don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine.”
Anthony’s dad ran a drugstore. While his mom and older sisters served customers at the cash register, Anthony zipped around the neighborhood on his Schwinn bicycle delivering prescriptions. Sometimes he’d get a nickel for a tip.
Any time Anthony struggled with homework, his father reminded him that every problem has a solution. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t run away because you don’t understand the problem. Think about it carefully and try to work it out. Anthony learned to start with wondering, then gather evidence, and keep an open mind.”
So those are the opening pages of the book, and it’s interesting that last page, his advice from his dad, is something that a number of educators have emailed me about saying, can we get a poster of this? I copied that page and put it up on my classroom because it’s such a model for problem solving of any kind. So it’s been really great to see the way young readers have responded to this.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, the fact that the title includes him becoming America’s doctor. I would assume that the title America’s doctor sits OK with him. Would that be too presumptuous?
KATE MESSNER: You know, we asked about that, to be honest with you. We brainstormed a whole lot of different titles. That wasn’t the original title for the book. One was a solution to every problem. When you’re brainstorming titles for a kid’s book you end up with a list of about 50 titles, and we tossed around a lot of things. But this one was the one that resonated, particularly just because Dr. Fauci is what would capture people’s attention. He’s been in the news since day one of this pandemic, and before then as well. But even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And love him or not love him, he’s on everybody’s radar. So we wanted to make sure his name was in the title.
I think that phrase America’s doctor does imply the sense of trust that many people have in Dr. Fauci. Somebody who would level with you and say this is how things are right now. They might change. We might have to change our response based on the science. I think people found that very comforting. I think that’s probably where that nickname came from.
IRA FLATOW: I know he’s a really hard worker. I’ve been talking with him for over 40 years, since the AIDS crisis when I first met him, when he was assigned as a scientist. You write about his life from childhood through the AIDS crisis into this pandemic. What do you hope that young readers take or learn from the story of his life?
KATE MESSNER: You know, I think the biggest thing I hope young readers will take away from this book is that science is something that’s accessible to everybody. Right? They can do science too. They can serve in public health the way Dr. Fauci has.
I think sometimes kids see this guy on the news, and you know, when you see Dr. Fauci on nightly news, he’s got his suit on, he’s standing at this podium next to the president, looking very serious. And I don’t think kids necessarily make the connection to understand that this is somebody who was once just a curious kid, just like they are. Playing baseball and doing school sports and riding his bike around. And I think that can be really powerful, to see how someone grew into a job like that of public service.
So that’s the biggest thing I hope they’ll take away. But also another really important thing is the idea that science is a process. And Dr. Fauci is very open in talking about that, and talking about how it’s a fluid thing, right? As we learn more, as we gather more data, our recommendations change, and our understanding of things are constantly changing. Science never stands still.
And so when you’re doing science, you’re going to make mistakes. And you’re going to change your ideas based on new information. And it’s a concept that not some adults aren’t very comfortable with. But I think it’s really important for kids who want to be scientists to understand that.
IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Fauci wrote tips for future scientists for this book of yours, and one of them was about failure and not being afraid.
KATE MESSNER: Yeah, for the book’s back matter we really thought it would be great if kids could hear directly from Dr. Fauci and hear his advice for future scientists. And so among those five tips, he talked about keeping an open mind, and said, don’t be afraid to fail. In science you fail more often than you succeed. So don’t get discouraged by something that doesn’t work. Ultimately that’s what science is all about. It’s step by step learning with a lot of missteps along the way.
And then one of the other tips he gave was remember that science is self-correcting. There may be something you think is one way, but if you really delve into it you may reveal that it’s another way. And so just, again, speaks to that idea of keeping an open mind and being open to new information, which is so relevant right now when we’re dealing with a virus that we’re still trying to figure out.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve been working for the last 18 months to explain COVID-19 to adults. Can you read us the part of the book where you describe this pandemic?
KATE MESSNER: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s always one of the challenges, and this is kind of one of my things as an author, is I do tend to tackle topics that not everybody’s excited to talk about with kids, right? Because kids recognize that there are things going on in the world around them that are not great, whether that’s the COVID-19 pandemic, or opioid addiction, or 9/11. And I think when we refuse to talk with kids about those things and say, oh, that’s too sad, or that’s too scary for kids, we’re not really doing them a service. We’re just kind of leaving them in the dark.
So one of the challenges with a book like this is to explain something as universal and huge as the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that makes sense to kids, and isn’t too scary, and relates to their experiences. So as the book talks about Dr. Fauci’s career at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, we discuss the infectious diseases that he’s dealt with, from AIDS, HIV, to Ebola, and SARS, and West Nile. And then the book reads, “Every new disease was a mystery to wonder about, a problem to solve. Where had it come from? How did it spread? How could it be prevented until researchers found a cure or a vaccine?
One of Dr. Fauci’s biggest challenges came when a new disease appeared at the end of 2019. COVID-19 caused by a coronavirus. Within weeks the virus spread around the globe. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses worked around the clock. Stores and gyms and theaters shut down. People had to work and learn from home.
A virus too tiny to see had stopped the whole world in its tracks. Where had it come from? Why was it spreading so quickly? How could anyone stay safe? People wanted answers, and at first Dr. Fauci simply didn’t have them. More and more people got sick, but there had to be a solution. Don’t get discouraged. Think about it carefully. Try to work it out.”
And from there the book goes on to talk about Dr. Fauci’s collaboration and the work of scientists around the world who listen to one another and gathered evidence, searching for solutions. How they shared ideas, they discovered new information, revised those ideas, and taught people simple ways to be safe while researchers worked on medicines and the vaccines that we have now.
IRA FLATOW: Now I know that this isn’t your first biography of someone famous, and you’ve already told us that one of your ideas is to talk to other scientists. How much does it impact kids, do you think, to see that well-known people, scientists and so on were once kids too?
KATE MESSNER: Oh, I know that it’s huge, because I talk with hundreds and hundreds of kids every year when I visit schools, and these days do Zoom visits to schools and libraries. And when I get email from kids and letters from kids, they always talk about, I’m really glad you talked about what he was like as a kid, because kids sometimes see the people on the news as different from them. Oh, those are people who are richer than I am, or who are smarter than I am, or they important people.
And when you hear the stories, when kids hear those stories, they come to realize that no, really, curiosity is at the heart of all of this. And that’s something that kids have in abundance. So that’s really their superpower. And I love for kids to recognize that.
IRA FLATOW: But there must be a balance, I would imagine in writing kids’ books about public figures in that, you don’t want to put them on too high a pedestal, because we’re all human at the end of the day, right?
KATE MESSNER: Sure, and that’s one of the reasons in this book about Dr. Fauci’s life we focus on not just the, yay, we got this vaccine, but that difficult time when people wanted answers, and there were no answers. The idea that science is a process. Failure is such an essential part of the scientific process. You can read about any development in science, any breakthrough, any invention, and before that moment of success you’re going to read about dozens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of failures along the way. It’s so much about revising ideas and gathering more data that we really– I talked with my editor about this when we were working on the book and fine tuning things. We really wanted that to be a centerpiece of this story.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking to children’s book author Kate Messner about her biography of Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s so interesting that you’re writing about COVID-19 like you’re describing it for an audience that hasn’t yet arrived. How do you think today’s kids are going to remember this pandemic?
KATE MESSNER: Well, that was a really interesting element. An interesting challenge when I was working on the book, because I was really writing it for two audiences. I was writing it for kids who lived through it and had questions and are still living through it. The students who are reading this book with their teachers in school this fall are kids who are pointing to the scene, and that spread where I read about how hospitals were overwhelmed, and stores and gyms and theaters shut down. People had to work and learn from home.
On that page, there’s a picture of this family all crowded into one room, all on their individual devices, trying to get their work done. The mom’s on the phone, the kids on an iPad, two other kids are on laptops, they’re all fighting for the same limited wireless bandwidth. Every kid who reads that is pointing to that page saying, hey, that’s me. That’s me. I’m part of this story.
So in one sense it’s for that audience, for this audience of kids who are living through this part of history right now. But it also needed to be a book that would explain this time period to kids who are born later on. So yeah, that was a really interesting balancing act. And then the other issue was writing history, of course, that is still in progress, right? We can’t write a story about the end of this pandemic because we’re not there yet. And so the development of vaccines, and that moment where people were vaccinated, and they were able to see friends and family that they hadn’t spent time with in a long time was the moment we chose for the sort of ending of this story, even though the pandemic isn’t over.
IRA FLATOW: My experience of interviewing kids is that they have a way of seeing simple truths that escape their parents, or that escape adults. And in this case I would be thinking, hey, we know it’s right to wear masks. We know how to avoid this disease. What’s all the fuss that you’re all making about this? Did you find that also?
KATE MESSNER: Yeah, I found that to be very much the case. When I talked to kids, when I Zoom into a classroom, if the kids are in school, they all have their masks on. And we talk about that. I’ll often start the Zoom visit with my mask on too, even though I’m in my office by myself. And saying, oh, I just wanted to match you for a minute but I’m going to take this off because I’m all alone in my office. And kids are great about that.
One of the real values that kids have, I find, almost universally is that they’re very good at taking care of one another, and they see that as a real responsibility, and a joy, right? And we do this because we all want to be in school. And we want everybody to be healthy, and it becomes this really great team effort. And I know not all the parents, not all the families are on board with that, but in my experience the young people that I’ve talked to have been absolutely phenomenal. It’s about taking care of one another. It’s not about politics or anything other than taking care of one another, and gives me a lot of hope.
IRA FLATOW: Well, hope is a good place to end our conversation, Kate. It’s a wonderful book. I hope it has great success.
KATE MESSNER: Thank you so much.
IRA FLATOW: Kate Messner is the author of Dr. Fauci, How a Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. And you can see an excerpt from the book with illustrations, some really good ones. It’s up on our website sciencefriday.com/drfauci Fauci.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.