Trust them. When things need to be done, the children will simply figure out how to get things done, like move the boat. The time to move the boat seems to follow the phases of the moon. Each month, the boat needs to be moved. Where or why is not known by the adults.
When things get tough, trust that the children will know what's what. The Secret of the Painted House was finished on Thursday and it was chock full of shockers. Two house fires, a run-away mother, a child child-snatcher, and worlds within worlds. Even worse, there was a ketchup sandwich in the story. And someone actually ate it!
So here is the deal. I would pick out the ketchup sandwich as the squirm-ily scariest and most uncomfortable thing in the book. Another adult might pick out the child child-snatcher as the thing that is scary. Yet another might wonder if the way that child child-snatcher became a ghost (she died in a fire) is the scariest thing. That is also sad. There is a whole list of sad things as well in this book. The sister leaving the little brother at the clearing while she goes to investigate the painted play house is sad. It is sad that the mother left the child and then that child became a child snatcher. It is sad that the "4-year old brother in the story is acting more like a 2-year old." This last observation was made by the Tracks class during the book discussion. They also thought it was absolutely tragic that the author did not know enough to put a proper Baba Yaga into the story.
Here is our take-away. Books like this one and others like it that are written for children, build a vocabulary and jumpstart dialogue for emotional resiliency -- as long as we, as adults, remain open to the natural curiosity, interests, and understanding of the children. What scares me is not the same thing that scares you or scares a child. Ask open-ended questions during discussions and wait and listen to the reply in order to hear what the children are actually thinking. Simple and basic facts in response to real life scariness is usually quite sufficient (for more information, visit Emory Luce Baldwin's blog entry, Helping Children Understand Violence and Tragedy). At school, we also continue to talk about story lines and characters well after we finish the book. For instance during dramatic play or outside -- the children insert intriguing parts of the storyline or characters into their play. The children's feelings about difficulties characters face in stories sometimes evolves over time, through play they gain understanding. But mostly, through our responses, reactions, and modeling they gain ownership of emotions.
A good rule of thumb to follow when choosing chapter books -- choose books in which the main characters are about the age of the child you are reading to. For our Tracks class, this could range from 4 and 5-year olds to about 8-year olds. When I begin a book, I will ask the children how old they think the characters are. This provides important context for them. We also talk about where they live and during what era. Context. Connections. These are active discussions.
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