by Amy Byrnes | For Jersey's Best
Thur., Mar. 4, 2021
The magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic over the last year could make anyone feel small. Between the global scope, the narrowing of our lives and needing to wear face masks every time we leave our house — it’s enough to make even the toughest adult want to crawl into a hole and hide.
So, imagine what it’s like to live through all of this as a little kid.
Nutley resident Ilene Dudek did. The mother of two and author of the “Little Ant Stories” picture book series has shrunk the coronavirus down to ant-sized proportions to help children make sense of the pandemic in her sixth and latest installment.
The book, “Little Ant & the Epic Battle,” was just recommended by the state of Illinois as a valuable COVID-19 resource for families with young children and now sits alongside recommendations from the CDC and UNICEF as a resource for understanding the pandemic.
Featuring an army of ants facing off against a swarm of menacing germs, the book is packed with all the details that get kids excited about reading — including talking fruit, epic battles and boogers. In the midst of all that kid-friendly fun, Dudek mixes in powerful messages about the threat of germs, the power of teamwork and the importance of handwashing in the picture book that also was awarded the 2020 Royal Dragonfly Book Award.
“There are so many important messages in it,” said Dudek, who also has explored scary noises in the night and bullying in the colorful series that’s targeted toward children ages 3 to 8. “It’s actually a very powerful book without being scary, and it gets parents talking about it without all the gory details.”
The former advertising copywriter, who also does the illustrations for the self-published book, said that the inspiration for the storyline sprang from a conversation with an old friend who she ran into during a walk early in the pandemic. As they talked about how strange and scary everything had become, Dudek said it lit a spark of an idea for a new book, and she went home and wrote the entire thing the next day. “I think I needed an outlet to get it all out,” she said.
The story in “Little Ant & the Epic Battle” begins innocently enough with Ant having fun at the park with all his friends until “the sneeze heard ‘round the world,’ ” shakes the playground and covers it in, well, boogers. Little Ant rushes back to his colony to report the news, and the ants band together to take on the viral monsters armed with spears and pitchforks who are intent on taking their mayhem beyond the park. “And as the germs infiltrated, all the world watched and waited,” the ant story goes, which runs parallel to what was really happening on the news each night last spring.
“It just tapped into the craziness of the time,” said Dudek, whose two sons are 12 and 7. “It was such a dark time, but the book is lighthearted and fun.”
Armed with a plastic sword he borrows from a lime garnish in a drink, Little Ant successfully battles the germs with disinfectant and soap, but because his arsenal is only 99% effective, Dudek hinted at the chance Little Ant will be called on again to take on a spreading virus.
To accompany the book, Dudek also offers a virtual storytime program, which she’s done for libraries and schools in the state, that amplify the messages of the book. She makes a game of identifying germs and does fun, germ-busting activities that help diminish the scariness of the coronavirus and encourage kids to wash their hands.
The seed for Little Ant was planted by stories Dudek would tell to her sons when they were younger about a tiny ant and his oversized adventures, like getting swallowed by a whale and fighting a seagull. “But he never gets flustered and always has fun,” she said. “I think I chose the ant because he’s this tiny, unsung hero who’s destined to do big things.”
Little Ant Story Time - featured on "Spotlight New Jersey" - News 12.