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play with friends
Sherry Lottero and Tori Schoen, author and illustrator of “Why Can’t I Play With My Friends,” look over the finished product. COURTESY TORI SCHOEN

Why Can’t I Play with My Friends
Written by Sherry Lottero, illustrated by Tori Schoen

Available at whycantIplaywithmyfriends.com
Proceeds go to the Feed My Children’s Fund, Feedmychildrendsfund.org.
Tori Schoen’s art can be seen on her Instagram page, @bytorschoen.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Why?

Why can’t I?

Parents know these questions.

But since March, when the country began to take steps to curb COVID-19, the questions have been tricky to answer.

The lockdown is over now — though some fear we may be on the way to another, thanks to rising numbers of cases — but that makes the questions harder, not easier.

After all, if some stores are open, a child reasons, why can’t I play with my friends?

“Why Can’t I Play With My Friends” is the title of a new children’s picture book, by New Jersey author Sherry Lottero, illustrated by Montclair’s Tori Schoen, Montclair High School Class of 2016.

Subtitled “A Pandemic Playbook for Kids,” the book features bold, brightly colored illustrations and a little boy named Alex, who asks “How come I can’t go to the playground? Play sports?” and wonders why “Mom is not going to the office? Dad is not traveling for work?”

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Alex’s parents sit him down and explain, and that’s accompanied by an illustration of coronavirus circling the globe.

One would not like to say the germ looks cuddly, but it’s safe to say it looks less scary, in Schoen’s illustration.

All proceeds from the book, available on its own website, go to the Feed My Children’s Fund,  a nonprofit dedicated to helping erase child hunger worldwide that works with organizations to rescue and distribute food, and with medical facilities to obtain and distribute excess medical supplies.

play with friends

WHAT ARE KIDS THINKING?

Schoen is a 2020 graduate of Lafayette College; she finished her senior year online. She was home in Montclair at the end of May when she got a text from her former tutor, Sherry Lottero. Lottero, of Fort Lee, had tutored Schoen, who is dyslexic, from second to eighth grade, and the two had stayed in touch.

“Why Can’t I Play With My Friends” is Schoen’s first book illustration venture, and it is a departure for her: She usually works analog, or hand-drawn, but she knew she wanted this book to be very colorful, so she decided to work digitally.

She wanted the illustrations to be explanatory, so that a child, even if too young to read, could look at the illustrations and gain a general sense of what was happening.

So she created brightly colored illustrations with Photoshop, using the pointer finger on her track pad. 

The figures have a flatness to them that is also a departure for Schoen, who usually works with a lot of detail.

“Simplistic was the sense I had,” she said. That was also what Lottero wanted.

By the time Schoen came onboard, the manuscript was done. 

Lottero wrote it quickly and wanted it to come out while the questions were fresh, so she self-published through Barnes & Noble.

“I didn’t do this to become a rich and famous author,” she said. “I needed to get this out when it was the most valuable for children.” She also wanted to raise money for the Feed My Children’s Fund. “This is a crisis,” she said. 

She had the idea last spring while sitting at her desk, wondering what was happening.

She thought, “If I can’t figure this out, what are the kids thinking? Their whole lives are changing. They can’t see their friends, or go to school. Their families need to get an explanation and know the facts about what’s going on.”

The book aims to help children understand how this landscape is affecting their lives, and convey the facts to them.

Lottero worked as an educator, specializing in literacy, working often with young children. She worked in a team to open Hope School, a preschool in Machakos, Kenya, in 2010, and remains involved with it.

Since she spent 16 years working in kindergarten, her thought went to picture books right away.

The age range, 3 to 8, may seem large, but, Lottero said, an 8-year-old will have different questions than a 3-year-old.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know how to discuss [the pandemic],” Lottero said.

The book is intended to be a jump-off point for educators and caregivers.

play with friends
Sherry Lottero and Tori Schoen hold their book. COURTESY SHERRY LOTTERO

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

Making digital, bright illustrations was a learning curve, Schoen said. Some of the illustrations would take hours, others, days.

“One of the ones I thought would be most challenging turned out to be the least challenging, and the most fun,” she said. The grocery store illustration has many shapes and different images: Alex’s mom pushes a cart in an aisle, shelves have different colored boxes, a sign says “Social Distancing / Stay 6 Feet Apart.”

“That’s the image where I really hit my groove,” Schoen said. By that illustration she had drawn every character in the book.

Some illustrations were scrapped along the way: The first page, a simple page of a little boy looking out the window, was redrafted three times, she said. 

Schoen thought of how when she was little, Lottero would give her stickers with little children’s faces when she did things well. She loved those simplistic drawings, and kept them in her head.

Self-publishing was “absolutely grueling,” Lottero said. “I got it done — for me that is like a victory.” She does not expect to make her money back, and that’s all right: Her goal was to help children and contribute to a worthwhile cause.

Marketing the book has been a challenge, Lottero said. Though she knows many educators who would have included her in a book fair, COVID-19, the very subject of the book, also has made it hard to get the word out.

She may do some readings on Zoom.

A spotlight on Fox5 television has drawn attention to the work. The Lafayette Student News also featured “Why Can’t I Play With My Friends?”  

Lottero also has received positive reviews on her website, including one from Cathy Vitone, a retired principal from Bradford Elementary School, who calls the illustrations “sensitive.” Vitone writes that the book “addresses BIG ISSUES!”

For Schoen, it’s exciting to see the book go on sale.

Both women know that people have COVID fatigue. Some of the moments in the book may be less relevant now, such as the page where the mother explains about wiping down groceries.

But as numbers go up, children will still have questions, Schoen said. “Children are still asking, ‘Why can’t I see my friends,’ especially as it gets colder, and we’re heading into a scary winter.”