The Ickabog in lockdown

Hannah S. Gilson on the role of literature and imagination in limiting isolation.

At the start of 2020, when news first began to spread about coronavirus in the UK, the psychological impact it would have on children was not at the forefront of public concern, as planning was concentrated on health service capacity, limiting new infections and protecting the vulnerable. However, as lockdowns were imposed around the world and schools were shut down, parents, teachers and healthcare professionals began to realise the potential damage to children’s mental health due to uncertainty and isolation.

Schools can often be safe spaces for vulnerable children when they have difficult home lives (Holmes et al., 2020), and even for those with harmonious family environments, school can provide a sense of community and belonging. These positive influences were abruptly taken from children when schools were closed with minimal warning. A recent qualitative interview study exploring children’s psychological reactions to the lockdown (N=82) found that 78 per cent reported symptoms of anxiety and psychological distress (Serge et al., 2020). As an ongoing crisis, the full extent of the impact of the situation on young people is not yet known, and some underlying problems and consequential maladaptive behaviours and coping strategies may not even emerge until later developmental stages (Wade, Prime, & Browne, 2020). However, it seems likely that youth mental health problems may be expected to worsen in the next decade as a result (Golberstein, Wen & Miller, 2020) and universal interventions must be identified to try to alleviate this.

One innovative strategy came in the unlikely form of The Ickabog. Renowned author J.K. Rowling had an idea which she hoped would provide some distraction for children while UK lockdown was at its height. She published a story, originally intended solely for her own children, for free, on-line, in daily instalments, throughout the weeks for children and their families to share. As popularity grew, the story was released globally and has now been translated into 18 languages. 

The story was accompanied by an international art competition: alongside every few chapters were suggestions for illustrations, which could be produced and sent in by readers aged 7-12, and the winning entries will be incorporated into the published book, which is due to be released on 10 November 2020. Rowling is donating her royalties from the book to The Volant Charitable Trust, which supports vulnerable groups impacted by Covid-19.

The plot of The Ickabog is epic, spanning many years and involving the fluctuating political fortunes of the nation of Cornucopia. Ruled over by the vain and foolish King Fred, but secretly controlled by his ruthless advisor Lord Spittleworth, Cornucopia is a rich and bountiful country, which lives with only one fear: the Ickabog. A creature of legend, no one is entirely sure what it is or whether it even exists, but the concept of the Ickabog comes to be used by Spittleworth as a weapon with which to subdue the people and grasp power.

At the heart of the story are two young heroes, Daisy Dovetail and Bert Beamish, both of whom suffer tragic loss, bullying and imprisonment, but each overcome adversity through their inner fortitude and friendship. Much like Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this is not a sugary children’s yarn, but respects its young audience enough to deal with powerful, universal issues. Betrayal and death are not shied away from: the characters undergo heartbreak, from which they learn and emerge stronger than they had believed possible; readers may well identify with this and derive encouragement from it. Characters young and old are sustained through times of devastation by their friendships, enduring despite separation, which may be comforting to readers who felt alienated from their peers through school closure. And with the current return to school, after such a long absence and with so much uncertainty, new anxieties will inevitably arise. Now, more than ever, children can benefit from sharing in Daisy and Bert’s eventual triumph over evil and take comfort in the story’s over-riding themes of hope and resilience. 

From an allegorical perspective, the motif of the ‘Ickabog’ itself can be viewed as symbolising the sinister threat of the virus, but also as a warning to readers that cruelty and malevolence are self-perpetuating – that societies can only thrive when individuals support each other and protect the most vulnerable. Daisy and Bert, who each retain their compassion and courage throughout all their struggles, provide valuable role models for readers who are struggling through 2020. 

The psychological power of literature cannot be over-estimated. Since oral storytelling first began, alongside their entertainment role, stories have been employed as didactic tools, with fairy tales and fables designed to mould behaviour. Literature and imagined characters can provide positive role models for social behaviours (Bettelheim, 1991) and specifically tailored narratives can be used to engage awareness of moral responsibilities (Wang & Goldberg, 2016). Evidence supports the efficacy of bibliotherapy, the practice of using children’s literature to provide emotional support as a low-intensity intervention, helping children to develop coping strategies in stressful or challenging situations (Heath, 2017), as well as supporting development of fluid intelligences such as communication and problem-solving (Rozalski, Stewart & Miller, 2010).

Aside from these educational goals, stories can provide emotional support; by exploring challenging plot lines and sensitive thematic paths, as Rowling has done, literature can provide children with an outlet for pent up emotions, providing a cathartic tool (Pulimeno, Piscitelli & Colazzo, 2020). Well-conceived characters can develop children’s empathetic responses and develop their consciousness of universality (Pulimeno et al., 2020), a much-needed concept at times when so many are suffering due to feelings of isolation. 

Providing modes of shared communication and connectivity has been identified as an urgent priority for vulnerable groups, including children and adolescents (Holmes et al., 2020), and literature can be an ideal format for that psychological tool. For the global digital community who have shared this story, it may have provided a sense of relief from feelings of isolation due to the lockdown. Collective familiarity with well-known stories can create a sense of shared understanding (Pulimeno, Piscitelli & Colazzo, 2020), which can help to mitigate feelings of isolation, even when children are physically separated from their peers. In addition, the illustrative competition accompanying the text established an opportunity for goal-directed behaviour which can be psychologically beneficial (Street et al., 2004), as well as the chance to express their own emotional reactions through their artwork.

The daily serialisation of the novella may also have had an affirmative effect, by providing readers with regular instalments, helping to contribute to the structure and routine which can help to support children’s psychological health in times of trauma (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2020). Furthermore, the expectation of a small literary gift to break the monotony of lockdown each day will have provided children with a reason for hope, an important contributor to an individual’s psychological capital and emotional well-being (Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017); as well as a positive talking point and shared interest for families who may be enduring difficult conditions. 

Over the coming months, all those with an interest in the mental health of young people will be striving to identify ways to alleviate problems which have emerged or worsened as a result of the pandemic, and to support children in the event of future lockdowns. Perhaps The Ickabog is evidence that literature and the power of the imagination could be put to use as a restorative. Rowling herself described imagination as ‘the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared’ (2008). By employing the power of imagination and encouraging children to expand their reading, it may help them to process the situation and their emotional reactions to it, and most importantly, remind them that they are not alone.

-       Hannah S. Gilson, psychology teacher and aspiring educational psychologist


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