Reading with our children is one of the most beneficial activities we can do to promote positive development. Reading itself opens up a unique door to information and self-awareness unlike other forms of media. It promotes self-regulation, concentration, imagination and mindfulness. When we read with our children we build our relationship, strengthen the attachment bonds that are the potting soil of emotional health, and communicate love and worth to our children. In this series of blog posts I want to share some of the books I have come across that I think are best situated to maximize these goals.
The Heart in the Bottle
I chose Oliver Jeffers “The Heart in the Bottle” as the first book to share and discuss in this blog series for one simple reason- I think it is the bestest children’s book ever written. I have used this book in my office for years now with children of all ages- including reading it to teenagers who typically begin the book with an annoyed sigh and end the book engaged and with more insight into how we respond to negative moments in life.
Jeffer’s captivating and insightful fable is about a young girl who Jeffer’s describes as “much like any other.” This young girl is curious about the world and has a grandfather that has served as a base from which to explore it. When her grandfather passes (spoiler alert) she is left grappling with the pain of such a dramatic loss.
The story details how she attempts to deal with this loss and the intense emotional experience that accompanies it. She decides the best way to deal with these overwhelming feelings is to distance herself from them by placing her heart in a bottle.
With her heart in the bottle she is able to avoid the devastation of losing her grandfather. However, the world is no longer as interesting and curious to her. She no longer finds joy in the things she used to. Once in- she finds getting that heart out of the bottle is more difficult than expected.
Jeffer's allegory of placing a heart in a bottle to avoid pain is brilliant and easily relatable. It is very apt for all children (and adults) and is especially apt for those experiencing the intense emotions that accompany traumatic stress. Avoiding big feelings by numbing ourselves to them or distracting from them can minimize their impact in the moment. However, in doing so we may also damn or dull positive emotional experience.We have our emotions for a reason and avoiding them misses appreciating their value and honouring what they are trying to communicate to us. We want our children to feel safe in experiencing a wide range of emotional experience and intensity and this book is a great gateway to facilitate some of the growth needed to do so.
The layout includes beautiful and fanciful imagery with minimal text on many of the more affectively charged pages. This allows a great deal of space for pause and reflection. Each image is a springboard for conversation or thought.
Discussion starters for “The Heart in the Bottle”
· Why do you think she put her heart in the bottle?
· What do you think happened when she put her heart in that bottle?
· She felt really sad. What are some other things she could have done when she felt sad other than put her heart in the bottle?
· Why do you think we feel sad?
Sample response: We experience sadness, and all emotions, to help us appreciate the things that are good in the world and avoid the things that are bad. When we lose something that is really important to us, like a relationship, we feel sad so that we can remember how important it was to us and try to find something like that in the future. Relationships are important and we want to do all we can to hang on to them. Sometimes we can’t and because it was important we feel sad that we no longer have it. It is okay to feel sad for these. We can feel sad about these relationships and still find happy relationships and experiences in the world.
· What are some things you can do when you are sad that would be helpful?
Some suggestions (let your child come up with as many as possible before offering any suggestions):
- Talk to someone you trust
- Do something you enjoy
- Write or draw something about the thing you have lost that expresses its importance to you
- Spend time with people who you care about
- Make a hot chocolate
- Go for a walk, run or bike ride
“The Heart in the Bottle” is available at most major book sellers including Amazon.ca or Indigo/Chapters. There is also an interactive App Version that can be found anyplace you purchase your apps from that includes a number of interactive activities your kids can do while reading the story and is narrated by Helena Bonham Carter.