Two weeks ago, I read Oliver Jeffers’s picture book The Heart and the Bottle to children in Years 1 and 2 at school. It is a book that I read a few years ago and enjoyed – admiring its ability to portray human grief sensitively and poetically. I wanted to share it with the children at school but I soon discovered that perhaps this was a picture book best aimed at older children.
In brief, the story is about a young girl who finds joy and fascination in exploring the marvels of the world, from the deep oceans to the infinite skies. She is encouraged to do so by a man who we believed was her grandfather (he walked with a cane and had grey hair – perhaps we were being too stereotypical) but others have said is her father. Regardless of the relationship, one day she draws a picture for the man and runs to give it to him, only to be faced with an empty chair. Her partner in exploration has gone and, bereft, she decides to put her heart in a bottle, which she wears around her neck to keep it safe. It remains there for many years until, one day, she realises that she needs it. Her problem, though, is knowing how to get it back.
This story is a very touching metaphor about how we deal with the devastation that death brings. The little girl, like many of us, just cannot bear the grief that threatens to break her heart and decides to keep it in a place where it will remain out of harm’s way. The problem, of course, is that she is also denying herself the opportunity to feel positive emotions, such as happiness and excitement. It is not until she meets a young girl on the beach – a girl who is around the same age as she was when she put her heart inside a bottle – that she realises that she wants access to her emotions again, to wonder at the stars and the sea. It takes the innocence of a child to gain her heart back again:
I loved this book when I first read it. It spoke volumes to me, as an adult, about how humans shield themselves from distressing emotions but, consequently, risk denying themselves their more joyful counterparts. However, as I read the book to the 5, 6 and 7 year-olds in the library, it became clear that the extended metaphor was perhaps too difficult for them to grasp at such a young age (ironic, really, when it is a child who is the hero in this story).
The problems first started when we reached the page where the girl finds the empty chair. I had a mixture of responses when I asked what they thought was happening:
One child said the man had gone away. Another, with an impatient sigh, declared (very loudly) “He’s dead.” (No mincing of words there, then.) Another boy yelled, “He’s jumped out of the window!” To be honest, all three were possible interpretations – we’re never told what happens and we have to use emotional detective work to figure it out. For example, the blue light, the shadows, the presence of night are all typical representations and symbols of death. But would a young child know this? Probably not.
The next part that caused consternation was when the girl removes her heart and puts it in a bottle. “But she’d be dead!” cried an indignant girl, while another asked, “How did she get it out of her chest?” The second-year pupils had more suggestions than the first-years, claiming confidently that it wasn’t a real heart – she’d made one out of paper and put it into the bottle. This was the closest we got to an understanding of the metaphorical, and I was impressed by their reasoning. One little boy, who was upset at the idea of the girl losing her (grand)father, insisted that it was the man who had given her his heart to keep it safe.
All the children understood that the girl had become older in the pictures – she was taller, yet stooped by the emotional weight she was carrying. Then, at the end, when she needs to get her heart back, they don’t understand how she can’t break the bottle – either by bashing it with a hammer or saw, or dropping it off a wall from a great height, as portrayed in the pictures. What kind of bottle is that? When we understand that it takes a young girl to help her, they take it literally (as the picture suggests we do):
The young girl can fit her fingers into the bottle whereas the adult is too big. That makes sense. But of course the metaphor is that a child thinks differently to an adult, and it is because of this that they are the only ones who can solve this particular problem.
As I said above, I do love this book and I know of other adults who treasure it. There’s something magical and poetic about the words and the drawings … but I am not sure whether it is a useful book about death for younger children, who have much more literal minds than we do. The heart itself is drawn more anatomically than the red, rounded shapes on Valentine’s Day cards, and this alone makes the children believe that the girl has actually, literally, taken her heart out of her chest. I may be mistaken, but I think that younger children benefit more from a more factual approach to life than a metaphorical representation – especially if my experience with the pupils in years 1 and 2 are anything to go by. I hope I didn’t cause too many difficult conversations at home on those days!