About Adam: The virtual hug that went around the world

After capturing the hearts of the nation, Adam is now the inspiration for a new book

David King warned me in advance that Sunday afternoon in his house could be chaos. It's not quite living up to that billing but it is every bit as busy as you'd expect from a household of seven. Eleven-year-old Katie is on coffee duty, offering a choice of excellent cappuccino or latte from the fancy machine in the kitchen. Nine-year-old Robert had a match earlier, and now he's setting up a science kit. Danny, the oldest, has gone to Funderland with friends for the day, and the youngest, 20-month-old Sarah, is just waking up from a nap in her cot upstairs. Their mother, Fiona, is catching up on laundry. "I feel like I'm in a relationship with my washing machine and my dishwasher at times. It's an emotional connection," she laughs.

Adam – who will turn seven a few days after my visit – trots into the hall to say hello, sharply dressed in a blue and white checked shirt and beige trousers. Adam reckons the shirt looks like something his friend Patrick Cockburn, the award-winning journalist, would wear.

They met when Cockburn invited the family to lunch, and he and Adam bonded over a few things they have in common. The 71-year-old journalist, who also grew up in east Cork and still lives nearby, contracted polio at six and spent time in a wheelchair. Adam has a wheelchair too, the appropriately-named Speedy, that he sometimes uses to get around.

Since that first Late Late Toy Show appearance, and the three which followed, the King family has been inundated with letters and cards and messages

Adam King is the child who captured the hearts of much of the population of Ireland – along with a few far beyond it, including those of astronaut Chris Hadfield and US president Joe Biden – after he appeared on The Late Late Toy Show just over a year ago.

When children go on The Late Late Toy Show, they sometimes get to meet a famous person they admire – Davy Fitzgerald or David Walliams, say. But the person Adam was thrilled to see on set was "JD", or John Doyle, the porter who looks after him on his regular visits to Temple Street hospital, where he gets treatment for osteogenesis imperfecta type III, a brittle bone condition. The clip of Adam meeting John on the show and offering him a "virtual hug" has been viewed more than 342,000 times on YouTube.

Since that first Late Late Toy Show appearance, and the three which followed, the King family has been inundated with letters and cards and messages, all of which Fiona has catalogued and filed away for Adam to read when he’s older. She sits up late at the kitchen table trying to answer as many of them as she can. “Some of the stuff people have sent us is so heartbreaking and heartwarming and so emotional. Some of them are addressed to the whole family, some to both of us, and some of them just to him,” Fiona says.

“The one thing I’ve taken from this year is the goodness of people,” David says.

The last 12 months have been an unexpected whirlwind. “He was delighted to [go on the programme] but we had no grand designs. He just wanted to bring his hug with him, and he wanted to bring Bubby,” his toy bunny rabbit, David says.

But there was something about Adam – his unaffected enthusiasm, his sense of wonder, his mission to spread hugs – that seemed to arrive into people’s lives just at the moment we needed it most.

He comes into the kitchen and climbs on to his Dad’s lap to have their picture taken. Has he had Bubby since he was born? Adam gives this some thought. “Well I think I might have got him before I was born, when I was born, or after I was born.”

Even on set, David says, “we had no concept of how it would go. There was no audience. There was eight to 10 people, and Ryan was giving it loads all night to a very small group of his colleagues”.

The only thing on David’s mind was “don’t fall off your chair. Don’t hurt yourself. I wasn’t having any thoughts of impact. I just wanted him to enjoy himself.”

Fiona was at home with the other four children. Adam had been expected on about 30 minutes earlier in the programme, and when he hadn’t appeared, she got nervous that he was having a wobble, or had gotten tired. “It was a very strange experience, because the two of them were gone, and all the rest of us were at home.” But as soon as the camera turned to Adam in his red Christmas jumper and his megawatt smile, “I got a sense he was going to be fine,” she says.

“Fiona would kill me, and we don’t normally do this, but I had him pumped with jellies to keep him awake,” David laughs. “He was on a sugar buzz.”

After the show, “we chatted to JD for a while, then we went back to the hotel and we video-called home”.

There's no hiding place with a child. They don't care what you've achieved. They don't care how rich you are. They just see you

All the while his phone was going "mental. And I thought a night like this is never going to happen again in our lives. So I just stayed up for a few hours and watched it. And then I started to see messages come in from Nasa and Chris Hadfield". Eventually, he had to turn off the notifications so he could get some sleep.

In the months after, Adam's virtual hug became a postmark, a greeting card and was projected in lights on some Irish landmarks in January last year, including the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin. Adam says he hopes it might one day be projected on to the Empire State Building "so everyone would get to see it" and the White House "because Joe Biden lives there and he sent us a letter. I can't really remember why". But he can remember what the US president wrote to him about. "He wrote about the hug, and he told me to never give up."

David adds that Biden also wrote to Adam about the challenge of having had a speech impediment as a child. He thinks that when well-known people, even presidents, write to children, they reveal a lot of themselves. “There’s no hiding place with a child. They don’t care what you’ve achieved. They don’t care how rich you are. They just see you.”

Biden also sent Adam two flags that had been to space. Adam took them outside for a photograph “and it was really windy, and they nearly went back to space”. He gets a fit of giggles remembering Danny chasing after the flags down the drive.

Failing that, he’d like his hug to make it to “Buckingham Palace”.

Why Buckingham Palace, I wonder. “Because the queen lives there,” Adam replies. But then he goes on to explain that when they went to London on holidays, they went to visit Buckingham palace, and Danny accidentally dropped a furry toy he’d made from pipe cleaners through the gate. “And so if we put it on Buckingham Palace, then the furry dude would get a virtual hug too.”

Who does Adam think the most special person he got to share a hug with over the past year was? "Well," he says solemnly. "I would say my doctors and my nurses. Or Ryan Tubridy. "

Later, when Adam is playing with Robert and Katie again, David says that being the parent of a child who has become a symbol of happiness and hope “is wonderful. But it’s strange as well at times. For me and Fiona, our priority has been for Adam to have the existence he’s always had. He goes to all his activities – he plays soccer, he goes to dance, he does GAA and tennis”.

We met this woman and her children, and she came over to Adam. I couldn't get over how serious she was – she said to him, 'you've been a real light in dark times'

“The other word I’d use is proud. We’re proud he’s been able to do so much good. I think by the end of the year, on his own, he’ll have contributed to raising nearly half a million euro for his hospitals. It’s definitely surreal as well. It’s crazy. And it can be challenging at times. Because we have five children, and they all have very different personalities, so it’s an interesting mix.”

Fiona, who isn't on social media, didn't appreciate how much Adam's appearance had an impact on people until a few days after The Late Late Toy Show. "We went out on the Sunday to Cork city, and people were stopping him and saying hello and asking for a photo," she says.

“It was absolutely bonkers for a couple of weeks,” David remembers.

Fiona tells me when the photographer takes Adam and David outside that she sometimes feels for the other children when they’re out and about and Adam gets all the attention, even when she’s pushing baby Sarah in the stroller. But they’re clearly very proud of their brother and at home, he is just one of the lads. Overall, David says, “the outpouring of love and support for Adam has been unbelievable”.

A while after the toy show, David and Adam stopped at the Applegreen on the M9 near Paulstown on their way to Dublin. "We met this woman and her children, and she came over to Adam. I couldn't get over how serious she was – she said to him, 'you've been a real light in dark times'. It registered with him, and he was very grateful, but I mean it really registered with me. The phrase she used stuck in my head when I was writing this – the light in the dark times."

“This” is the book David has written, inspired by Adam’s virtual hug, called A Hug for You (a few days after we meet the book is shortlisted for the junior Children’s Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards).

Illustrated by Rhiannon Archard and published by Sandycove, it is a gorgeous, moving book that tells the story of "a little boy with a big idea when the world needed it most". The book features all the strange, socially-distanced scenarios children have had to get used to since the start of the pandemic in a way that will resonate with younger readers – home schooling, standing 2m apart in a queue at the coffee shop, not being able to attend dance classes and, for children who have been in hospital, not being able to hug the nurses who look after them. David wanted it to be as representative as possible, and the illustrations include a ballerina with a prosthetic limb.

The book recounts the experiences of a difficult and often lonely year in a gentle and ultimately uplifting way that will help younger readers make sense of it. When it arrived at my house, I asked my seven year old to read it, and she gradually slid along the couch until we finished it together, with her tucked under my arm. When I tell David this, he beams. “One thing that I suppose I wanted with the book is that when you finish reading it with the adult in your life, you give them a hug.”

Adam is back to – beautifully – read a few pages from the book as he’s having his picture taken. I ask if he helped his Dad write it. “Yeah,” he replies. “He wrote it, and then he got the pictures, and then I’d read the book and look at the pictures, and I’d give him advice.” One important piece of advice Adam gave was, David says, to make sure that Bubby was on every page and the lads – his brothers and sisters – were in the book. So Robert is in there watching a football match; Sarah is in her mother’s arms looking at Adam home-schooling. Katie and Danny appear too.

A Hug For You is David's second book: he wrote another a few years ago entitled But Really…Adventures with a Difference and self-published it. A secondary school teacher by training, his day job is working in education policy for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. "My passion is representation of difference. I wanted to write a book about Adam, that had children like Adam in it, because there weren't many. So I just had the idea to write my own. The first book, I wrote it to Adam and I wrote it about Adam, and for Adam. I wrote this book for everyone. The thing that stuck in my mind was when Ryan [Tubridy] asked Adam about your virtual hug, 'Is it for me, or is it for everyone?' And Adam said, 'It's for everyone'. I really wanted to try to capture a lot of the things that we've been through for the last the last year."

The inspiration for it came from encounters like the one in Applegreen, and the influx of letters and calls they had. “We were really moved by all the different ways that people took the virtual hug to be theirs and embraced it as a symbol during Covid. And I wanted to capture that.”

Writing his first book, he had been too nervous to approach a publisher. “Because I wrote it about Adam, and I wanted the story represented in a certain way, and I was afraid somebody would take it and take the soul out of it.”

Adam spent the first six weeks of his life in the neonatal unit. He spent a lot of that time away from us. Even then, he was always smiling at the nurses. He was a real little people person

Working with Sandycove, “I made it really clear from the start that there was a certain way I wanted Adam represented and how he looks visually. That was really important, especially when Adam has a condition that affects him physically. I wanted him represented correctly proportioned height-wise, size-wise. But I had nothing to worry about. I was listened to every step of the way. It was a wonderful process.”

There's also an animated series about Adam in the offing, Adam Loves Adventure, which will be made by the Irish animation studio Kavaleer Productions. David recently travelled with the studio to Toulouse to pitch the series at the Cartoon Forum.

For all the excitement of the past year, the challenges of caring for a child with a rare condition haven’t gone away. Stints in hospital have been a big part of Adam’s life since he was diagnosed at birth. He was back in a couple of weeks before we meet having taken a tumble, and David thinks he might have had a little micro-fracture, though he rarely complains about pain. Both his parents think the experience of spending so much time in hospital and the care he gets there have contributed to his outgoing nature.

“Adam spent the first six weeks of his life in the neonatal unit. He spent a lot of that time away from us,” David says. “Even then, he was always smiling at the nurses. He was a real little people person.”

Fiona always took the attitude “that ‘look, we’re here. You can decide to be happy or sad about being in hospital. You might as well just embrace it and enjoy the company’. And for me, I would always enjoy the familiar faces. We enjoy the chat”.

His parents’ positivity has evidently rubbed off on Adam. Even so, it isn’t always easy. There was a very tough moment during the Christmas before lockdown. Sarah was four days old, and Adam’s leg was in spasm, so couldn’t be put in traction. If he moved at all, it was very painful. “We were staring down the barrel of being in hospital for Christmas. And his surgeon cancelled everything and drove down to see Adam,” says David. They got home at 3pm on Christmas Eve. “It was one of those Christmas miracles.”

“Do you know Covid-19?” Adam asks. I tell him I do. “I think that might have been around for Sarah’s whole life. It was around when she was born, but we didn’t really know about it.”

I ask him why he thinks people loved his hugs so much during Covid-19. “I think because, well, I made it at a really difficult time.”

Are you proud of your hug, his Dad asks him. Adam gives this some thought. “Yeah,” he says finally.

Who would he most like to send a hug to now? “I think maybe the astronauts on the ISS,” Adam replies. He is planning to be a Nasa CapCom (the astronaut on earth who communicates with the crew) when he grows up. He has spoken to a CapCom controller over Zoom. What advice did she give him? “To keep the crew in your heart,” he says.

This will be easy for him because “Danny is going to be an astronaut when grows up”, so he already has the crew in his heart.

But there is one thing he’s not sure about. He thinks it would be tricky to hug people in space.

“I think you would keep floating away from each other.”

A Hug for You by David King and illustrated by Rhiannon Archard is published by Sandycove

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times