Anjali The Brave: All About Vaccines is a new children’s book about the importance is vaccines in fighting diseases such as those that caused the Covid pandemic. Understandable, young children are facing fears about the needles so, to help soothe these anxieties, two female doctors of color—Dr. Adjoa Smalls-Mantey and Dr. Maria Abraham—wrote this book which focuses on a little girl named Anjali who is afraid to get a shot until she speaks to her doctor and learns about the benefits of vaccines. At the same time, she develops a desire to help others, thanks to the example of amazing scientists who created life-saving vaccines.
Dr. Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, MD, DPhil, is a physician-scientist and writer. She conducted viral immunology research for many years, and currently practices psychiatry in New York City. Her mission as a writer is to empower people by sharing information about health, wellness, and mental illness. Dr. Smalls-Mantey loves art, enjoys traveling, and is an avid runner.
Dr. Maria Abraham, MD, MPH, is a public health physician who has spent her career working in Asia and the United States. She is passionate about improving health outcomes for vulnerable populations. Dr. Abraham is a mother to two boys who keep her busy and always entertained.
Dr. Adjoa Smalls-Mantey and Dr. Maria Abraham recently discussed this book via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in becoming a doctor and how long did it take you to achieve that goal?
Adjoa: At first, I wanted to be a scientist and study infectious diseases. Then during summer research program, I had the opportunity to visit an anatomy lab and I realized how miraculous the human body was and I became interested in treating people. So, I decided to do both. At the end of college, I applied to combined MD/PhD programs and went on to earn both degrees, doing both bench research and learning medicine.
Maria: I grew interested in the field of medicine from a very young age. Upon finishing medical school in Singapore, I worked through the SARS outbreak as a junior doctor. This, for me, propelled an interest in Public Health. Soon, I came to New York City to pursue a Master of Public Health. My interest is in working with vulnerable populations to improve health outcomes.
MM: How did you meet one another?
Adjoa: We met while working for the New York City Office of Mental Health. Maria had been there for years and I joined a project she was working on. That work involved making sure insurance companies would cover mental health treatment the same as they would physical health treatment and that they didn’t have policies that made it hard to access psychiatric care. Unfortunately, this has been a big problem.
Maria: As Adjoa mentioned, we were both working for the State of New York when we met. Our working relationship turned into a friendship as we realized we had a lot of shared interests.
MM: How did the outbreak of Covid affect your practices?
Adjoa: COVID started while we were working at the Office of Mental Health so like many we started working virtually. I also worked in the hospital emergency room on weekends, where I would see anyone who came in with a mental health crisis. During the first two to three months of the pandemic, very few people came to the emergency room specifically for psychiatric evaluation because people didn’t want to risk exposure to COVID at the hospital. But by the summer of 2020 the number of people coming to the emergency room to see a psychiatrist returned to previous levels. Now, two years later, the numbers seem even greater because of the current mental health crisis.
Maria: I just had my second child when New York City shut down from COVID-19. It was nothing like I had ever seen or experienced before. I came back after maternity leave to remote work earlier than I had anticipated. It was all hands-on deck. On the personal front, I realized quickly, like thousands of other parents everywhere, one of my greatest responsibilities now was to keep my children safe.
MM: How did you decide to collaborate on a book and how long did it take to write?
Adjoa: Last year I was giving a lot of talks and writing articles for ABC News about the COVID-19 vaccine. While doing this I realized that many parents were hesitant about their children getting a new vaccine, even though they got it for themselves. And we understood why parents would be wary of something relatively new. Maria and I were talking about this and thought that a children’s book would allow us to speak directly to children and their parents about how the many vaccines we’ve received over the course of our lives, mostly as kids, has saved lives for hundreds of years and hopefully help both kids and their parents feel more comfortable with a “new” vaccine, considering all vaccines were new at one point. From there, it took us about a month to write the first draft and a few more months to edit.
Maria: After the grown-ups in my household had received the COVID-19 vaccine, my five year old was very curious and had many questions for me such as: Why do we need shots? Why do we need so many? Why do they put it in your body? I figured that I was not alone and that many parents must be also experiencing this. While a few children’s books on vaccinations already exist, there was a gap in the market around the history of vaccines, particularly highlighting the fact that we have been getting vaccines for a very long time and that they work! Adjoa and I decided to showcase some of these vaccines and the brilliant scientists (who are men and women from all over the world) who developed them.
MM: How did you find a publisher?
Adjoa: A colleague of mine had recently published a children’s book and he told me about his publisher, Indies United Publishing House (IUPH). We submitted Anjali the Brave and it was accepted quickly! Prior to that we approached other agents and publishers but were told the earliest our book might come out was Spring 2023 and we were in Summer 2021. IUPH would work with us to get our book out in months, which was important to us because of the timely subject of the book, so we were very excited to work with them.
MM: The illustrations are wonderful! How did you find the artist?
Adjoa: Google! We had an idea of the style we wanted and started querying artists online. If an artist said they could potentially meet our fast deadline, then we asked for a preliminary sketch of our title character. Paul Buște of Deveo Studios really brought Anjali and the other characters to life. It was so fun working on concepts for illustrations with him!
Maria: Paul Buște was wonderful. Deveo Studios captured our vision and were as passionate about an informative vaccine book for children as much as we were.
MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about this book so far?
Adjoa: One child told me that the book helped her to not be afraid of shots anymore! We often fear what we don’t understand so I’m glad it helped her learn more.
Maria: I had a parent tell me that he had learned so much about vaccines from the book too! He felt it was as informative for him as it was for his kids.
MM: What other topics might you cover in future books?
Maria: We would love to continue Anjali The Brave as a series and address other health-related topics.
MM: What has been the highlight of your careers, as both authors and physicians, so far?
Adjoa: The highlights are in the small everyday moments. As a writer, it’s rewarding when people tell me that my writing made them feel more confident in making a decision. As a psychiatrist working in an emergency room thing move so quickly. You always try to do your best for everyone. Many times, you don’t know how things end-up for patients because you never see them again. But hearing “thank you” from a patient or family member, days or even months later, is the best feeling in the world. It’s nice to know what you did was meaningful.
Maria: As a public health physician, it takes a long time to see reward from your work. I get most satisfaction from working to increase access to essential healthcare for vulnerable populations.
MM: What is coming up next for you and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
Adjoa: Right now, I’m really enjoying this space I’m in. I’ll continue writing and treating patients and we’ll see what happens next.
Maria: My family and I just moved back to Singapore from NYC. I am excited about the next chapter, both on the professional and personal front.
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To learn more, visit these websites and social links:
Adjoa = Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, MD, DPhil
Maria = Maria Abraham, MD, MPH
Instagram: @anjalithebrave, @doctoradjoa, @alks_326