It’s been a challenging week in the United States as authorities make difficult decisions in response to the rapidly changing status of the COVID-19 pandemic. As various articles and infographics rushed to explain the critical impact of social distancing, a favorite picture book popped into my mind. I was able to make one last stop at the library before it closed on Tuesday, and among other treasures I checked out One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi.

Demi’s signature style is here applied to a traditional story from India, about a raja who – believing himself just – collects all the people’s excess rice in preparation against famine. But when famine comes and the rice crop fails, he refuses to portion out the stored rice and keeps it instead for himself. As the people starve he decides to give a banquet, and orders rice from the royal storehouses.

The rice is loaded in baskets across the back of an elephant, which is then led to the palace. As the elephant passes through her village, a girl named Rani notices a leak in one of the baskets and a small trickle of rice falling down. She walks beside the elephant, collecting the lost rice in her skirt. But she does not keep it; upon arriving at the palace, she returns it to the raja. Wishing to prove himself magnanimous, he promises her a reward. Clever Rani asks for one grain of rice.

Embarrassed, the raja presses her to accept a better gift. She consents to receive one grain of rice the first day, and then every day double the amount of each previous day for a month. The raja, thinking her foolish, agrees.

So Rani receives one grain of rice, and the next day, two. Then four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two. Still not much; but those of you with a knack for numbers can see where this is going. By the thirtieth day Rani is entitled to 536,870,912 grains of rice. The total of her reward is over a billion grains: enough to feed the people.

The raja learns his lesson, and so -I hope! – will we. Medical sources are projecting that each person who carries the Coronavirus will infect two more. Follow Rani’s math and you can quickly see why we are all directed to stay in our homes and limit contact.

Demi’s typical vivid, lustrous illustrations bring camels, monkeys, and elephants swirling across our imaginations. Rani’s brilliant scheme is factually supported with a chart at the back of the book, so children can see how the numbers seem to double so slowly at first, but quickly reach quantities to alarm the raja himself. This evergreen tale is always a jewel for demonstrating the power of numbers, but just now it can serve as a particularly useful allegory for contagion, and the dire need to reduce community spread.

And yet these numbers need not make us fearful; for if sickness can be doubled, so too can kindness and joy. We are all encouraged to reach out during this time, and help neighbors and family alike. Perhaps children can be encouraged to use this time to focus on doubling their impact by choosing two good deeds a day: calling Grandma and reading a book to a younger sibling, or helping cook supper and writing a letter to a friend. Home is the source of so much goodness; being confined to it need not limit our charity, but should rather multiply it.

Yet one more parallel occurs to me, specifically in the case of children who are old enough to notice the empty store shelves and the newsworthy fights over basic commodities. Such children need to see that, in times of hardship, it falls to each of us not to be like the raja: hoarding what he can for himself. It is up to every faithful citizen to take only what is needed, and to provide charitably for others. By so doing, with God’s Grace, we shall emerge from these times healthier of soul than we were before.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The King’s Chessboard, written by David Birch and illustrated by Devis Grebu