Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons in life is the one about feelings. How do we communicate how we feel, and how do we “read” other people’s emotions, so that we understand them? I believe that empathy can be learned, and in this article, I want to explore the ways in which we can show young readers how our characters feel, and at the same time analyze why it is important that we teach children about emotions in our books.
At a very basic level, we can state how a character feels and say our character feels happy, excited, contented, sad, jealous, scared, and so on. This is a useful way to help young children build a vocabulary which they can practise and draw on. Good illustrations will help children match the emotion to the facial expression or bodily gesture.
A popular way that writers stick by the rule, “show don’t tell,” is to illustrate emotion with a bodily feeling. Saying that someone is shaking when they are scared, feels dizzy when they are excited, are common examples. This method helps children associate a cognitive label we give to the emotion with the physical feeling. It helps children identify, and name emotions, from the signs and physical manifestation of their own and other people’s emotions.
Cinema and animation have a lot to teach us about writing emotion into a children’s book. Think about how a camera focuses in on a character’s reaction to the emotion of another character. We see their reaction to the emotion, rather than the face and body of the person expressing it.
From noticing the reactions of others to the character, older children are able to identify and anticipate- in their imaginations – how the “invisible” character may feel.
When the camera or the author’s all-seeing eye focuses in on the character and brings them into shot, the reader is “shown” what they have already worked out for themselves. This makes the delayed reveal dramatic, powerful and memorable. Children take pleasure in making their own discoveries.
When we have group gatherings in our books, the interplay of emotions between characters makes for a rich text. Children get to understand, that in a sense, we decide how we feel since emotions are, in part, cognitive.
Charismatic, more dominant characters may set the mood and influence how others feel, although each character will express the same emotion in their own unique way. Dialogue can suggest group harmony or discord. Characters that spend a lot of time together may mirror one another’s verbal patterns and mirror each other’s gestures, too. One can suggest conflict or distance when characters’ moods fail to match or they do not see, hear or sense how the other feels.
The back-story is another way we can show the emotions of characters. When characters talk about each other in their absence, children hear different points of view and emotional content about a particular character that is “backed up” through hearing the history of a character through the eyes of others.
Children will have their own feelings about tales of courage, kindnesses, loyalty, leadership, and bravery, for example, and will have a sense that they are “close” to their hero. They will learn how to identify why a particular character is likeable and understand that we can measure character through people’s actions and behavior.
When writing action sequences, it is important to have a wide range of verbs to pinpoint how our character does something. Try to be precise in your selection, and be economical and selective with adverbs, which should only be used to “add something” to the meaning of the main verb. How someone does something is often the key to a character’s emotions. During the course of my book series, even young children will understand that Snugs talks a little faster when he is impatient and excited, for example.
A story which entertains will create such a close identification with the main character that children will want to imagine that they are in fact the hero in the imaginary world of the book.
Children will experience what it is like to be admired and feel proud of themselves when they do good deeds. This role modeling creates a kind of safe rehearsal for kids to have confidence in their own abilities, cultivate resilience, and rise to challenges in life.
Another great way to depict emotion is to reinforce a show of emotion with an interior monologue, which says what a character is actually thinking at the same time. Children can be shown that people do not always state how they feel. Kids may learn that we can not always tell how someone “feels inside” through what they reveal “on the outside” for example. This may be a good way to teach children about privacy, or how to keep a secret.
Older children will also grasp that some people may pretend they feel one thing when, in actual fact, they feel another.
What characters experience and see in the wider world is certainly a reflection of their outlook on life and perspective, which teaches us about their emotional make up that is part of personality. A useful way of comparing characters here is to have them “look” at the same thing, yet each sees and experiences it differently.
When writing descriptions of a scene, we always write from the point of view of the character. Characters will notice and interpret what is important and significant to them – from their own perspective.
Here is a short excerpt from my children’s book, “Snugs The Snow Bear,” which illustrates this point. It is taken from the chapter, “Two Moose, A Bear, and a Sled,” which features a view from a lighthouse:
“When they looked out of the lighthouse windows, Mr. and Mrs. Merryweather saw that the waves were very rough and gray. When little Snugs looked out, he saw that the roofs of the cottages, that nestled close to the lighthouse, were now completely white…..It wouldn’t be long before The Isle of Wight would be snow white – Snugs was sure about that!”
On one level, it could simply be that the characters are looking out of different windows and see different “views” but here I use this as a metaphor for different points of view and perspectives.
The Merryweathers are an elderly retired couple. They have lived a lifetime together and raised grandchildren. This is why they share the same view – they are inseparable.
They are concerned about the harsh weather, and the well-being of their young animal friends, who are about to go on an adventurous journey in the snow. They will miss their furry friends while they are gone because they love and care about them.
Snugs, on the other hand, is young, and does not worry about danger, and to a polar bear, snow is the most fun thing in the world! He’s going out soon to play with his moose friends! How exciting! He can’t wait to be out in the chilly snowy weather! He doesn’t worry and knows that The Merryweathers will be there for him when he returns home – a place of comfort and security.
The landscape of the Isle of Wight is a character, and it magically conspires with Snugs Bear to match his mood and delight him! Landscape, of course, can always echo or contrast with a character’s emotions to shed maximum light on them.
Children learn that our vision of the world is unique, and composed of the objective world (real) and the subjective – our interpretation of all that surrounds us.
Part of the magic-in-the-world is when we experience something as if for the first time, and when we share this with others, they can share a similar but not identical vision, which may confirm and “add to” what we have seen, heard, or felt. Children learn that shared experiences create empathetic bonds that will last a lifetime.
When we write for children, we should always keep in mind our target age group, and be aware of cultural differences and diversity. Facial expressions and gestures may differ across cultures, and certain emotions may be taboo.
On the other hand, there is much we can do to help children tackle emotionally difficult areas through Children’s Literature that is written with sensitivity. For example, we can introduce death and dying through a story about the life cycle. We can raise awareness about migration and homesickness or bullying, isolation and loneliness through the stories we tell.
These kinds of stories help prepare children for common experiences and the human range of emotions that go with them. Children’s books can do much to offer consolation during difficult times, and, as with an old friend, the stories inspire children and reassure them that they are not alone. In actual fact, readers may revisit them in their adulthood.
This is a very personal thing, but, whatever the story, I believe children’s stories should always end on a happy or comforting note.
Copyright, Suzy Davies, 02/08/2017, All Rights Reserved, No Copying or Translation without the Written Permission of The Author.