‘The Vaccinator vs. the Hug-Hater’: Writing contest offers kids’ views of the pandemic

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Asa Vershbow

Asa Vershbow, 7, stands on the porch of his family home in West Philadelphia, where he composed his award-winning story about COVID robot monsters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

This is how we will defeat COVID-19. World health officials: take note.

It’s a floating orb called the Vaccinator.

“It looks like a Pac-Man,” said Asa Vershbow, 7, of West Philadelphia, who invented this coronavirus killer. “It is a ball that opens on every side and eats up COVID molecules in the air. Inside is a robot that turns the molecules into vaccines, and then takes the vaccines into its cave and tests them on perfect robot DNA copies of humans that were not actually human.”

This is what it looks like:

The Vaccinator
The Vaccinator is a robotic COVID-19 virus-killing device invented by Asa Vershbow, the 7 year-old author of “Asher’s Indoor Adventure.” (Asa Vershbow)

The Vaccinator — which might be a machine or some kind of sentient being with artificial intelligence, it’s hard to determine — teams up with another coronavirus fighter called Prison, which, according to Asa, is “a cobra alien thing that uses its tongue to suck COVID out of people who have COVID, and goes back to a cave to help the Vaccinator.”

These are the heroes of Asa’s short adventure story, “Asher’s Indoor Adventure,” submitted to a writing contest, My Indoor Adventures, for kids stuck at home during the pandemic.

Asa and Gregory Vershbow
Asa Vershbow, 7, plays with the robot he built while his father, Gregory Vershbow, reads aloud. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Book-a-Day, a community partnership that supplies new books to West Philadelphia elementary schools each month, launched the contest, asking children ages 6 to 10 to write a story, memoir or cartoon about what it’s like to live under a pandemic shutdown.

The winner of the contest is Freja Laurison, 10, a rising fifth-grader at Masterman School, for a cartoon she drew describing the importance of mask-wearing and acts of kindness.

“Ever since the crisis, life has been cold, even empty. So many people are giving up,” she wrote. “Sometimes I feel lost, and yet I feel like flying. Let that feeling go.”

Freja Laurison's COVID-19 comic
Freja Laurison, 10, took home the top prize for her coronavirus-inspired comic. (Freja Laurison)

Freja comes away with the first-place prize, a $125 gift card for a local bookstore, Bindlestiff Books.

Asa’s story won him second place, earning him a $75 gift card for Bidlestiff’s and a selection of picture books.

When his mother, Shira Brisman, first told him about the contest, “he immediately started orally recounting this story he wanted to tell.”

“I grabbed a notebook and just started writing furiously,” she said. “He was already producing the story. I was transcribing what he was saying.”

The story is actually a layered narrative: The main character is a boy named Asher, who is remarkably similar to Asa in that both the real and fictional boy is trying to finish a story for a writing contest, but Asher has an older sister named Lydia, a pet tortoise and is “8 years, 2 months, and 5 days” old. (Asa will be turning 8 in September.)

“Over time, he took over and started to do the writing. He found out the writing process was also an editing process, so he went over my notes and amended what he had done before,” said Brisman. “It was exciting to see it pour out of him.”

While there have been many observations from health officials, business owners, older students and parents about the challenges of sheltering at home, this writing contest for younger children gives them a chance to offer their own perspective on living during the era of COVID-19.

Asa Vershbow
Asa Vershbow, 7, stands on the porch of his family home in West Philadelphia, where he composed his award winning story about COVID robot monsters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Several submissions bemoan the amount of screentime they are forced into, for both school and for entertainment.

In her illustrated essay “Quarantine,” a fifth-grader, whose parents requested her name not be published, recounts a day of seemingly endless series of online video meetings for school.

“Online meetings give me a headache. My next class is at 12:30 and it’s gym. You can’t really do physical activity during Google Meet, so our meetings tend to have a bunch of kids from all of the fifth grade yelling and talking about their dream last night, or the brownies they made yesterday, or the smell of their newly cleaned room,” she wrote.

For Asa’s adventure story, he created a villain called the Hug-Hater, who invented the COVID-19 virus as a way to stop people from gathering with and hugging family and friends. In the end, the Hug-Hater sees the havoc he created with the coronavirus and has a change of heart: He vows to defeat his own creation, renaming himself the Huginator.

“When my family sees each other, we hug each other,” said Asa, whose grandparents recently retired and moved to Philadelphia in order to be closer to him. Social distancing is now a cruel irony.

“I miss them,” he said. “I’ve been able to see them on the porch at a distance. We’ve been meeting at parks with my cousins sometimes, but it hasn’t been like what we used to do.”

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