The coronavirus pandemic hit Sophia Nesamoney's family hard.
Several of her older relatives in India died of the disease, an unexpected tragedy that sent her family reeling.
"Their deaths had a large impact on both of my grandparents and mother," Nesamoney said. "Our extended family in India owns their own hospital, so it was particularly devastating because so many of our relatives are doctors and therefore generally have good access to the health systems in place."
But in the face of tragedy, Nesamoney, along with her brother Sean, felt inspired to do something.
"We saw the impact of that on the older generation of our family. Coping with that was really difficult. So we wanted to do something that would help families. In the United States as well, many families are going through difficulty whether that's the loss of family members or economic instability," she said.
What came next was the spark for a creative project. Sophia, a Stanford University student studying biology and creative writing, and Sean, a sophomore at Menlo School and digital artist, set to work on a book.
"We wanted to do something that would help kids, especially young kids," Nesamoney said. "There's a lot of news that people our age can understand and read, but for young children there's not a lot of information that's accessible."
After some weeks of work, the pair of Atherton residents had produced "ABC's of Coronavirus." The 29-page children's book explains the pandemic to young kids, taking a tour through the alphabet and brightly colored cartoons. "A is for 'arm,'" the book's opening page reads. "In order to keep you and your friends safe, make sure to stay two arm's lengths or six feet apart."
At first, they only sent a copy of the book to their own former elementary school Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park. But the head of the school loved the book, and passed it on to a cohort of 50 other schools. "It started spreading quickly," Nesamoney said.
As buzz for the book spread through the community, parents came to them with a new request: Translate the book into other languages. With the help of friends and family members, they translated the book into Spanish, French, Dutch, Korean, and three of the languages spoken in India.
From there, the doors opened worldwide.
With the help of their website, HowtoCoronavirus.co, requests began to come from elementary schools and youth programs across the world. "ABC's of Coronavirus" has since landed in Nepal, France, India, Spain, Chile, Mexico and the Netherlands.
Then another exciting turn: The American India Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit supporting development in India, integrated "ABC's of Coronavirus" into its curriculum for underserved communities, Nesamoney said.
The San Mateo County health department also mentions the book as a resource for explaining COVID-19 to children.
For now, Nesamoney said she and her brother plan to keep promoting the book through their website, where parents and educators can download it for free. They've also recorded an audiobook available on YouTube.
Nesamoney said that she plans to become a doctor someday, and that the "ABC's of Coronavirus" brings together her two passions of biology and creative writing.
"That's what drew me to creating this picture book, is bridging science with arts and humanities," she said.
Her brother Sean also has a strong creative streak, with an interest in digital art, music production and computer programming.
Given the tragic loss of their family members to coronavirus earlier this year, Nesamoney seemed grateful that the experience of writing the book brought their family closer together. She said that her parents have long been involved with the American India Foundation, and that her grandparents helped translate the book into Indian languages.
"It's been great to have the different generations incorporated into it," she said. "It's been fun doing something like this during quarantine."
Nesamoney said that she wants the book to give young children a sense that they can make an impact on the world during these uncertain times.
"We wanted to make it something that was actionable and hopeful," she said. "Especially when there is so much loss around the world, we wanted to bring a little bit of light in."