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The Dark in the Box: engaging with emotions through stories

September 21, 2017 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

We have all most likely  experienced what it is like to be afraid of the dark, either in our own childhood or through the eyes of a child we care for. Fear, anxiety and loss are some of the negative emotions which can be challenging to deal with not only at home but also in the classroom, especially when we are working with young children. Young learners do not possess the complex language skills to describe what they are afraid of and they might not be familiar with the vocabulary to talk about the things that concern them.

One way of addressing feelings which are often considered difficult is reading stories. When working with young learners, stories with illustrations and picture books in particular are highly indicated. Our new young reader, The Dark in the Box written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Manuela Scarfò is an excellent example of how poignant images accompanied by simple texts can get young readers to engage meaningfully with stories which help them express their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Title page in The Dark in the Box. Illustrated by Manuela Scarfò. © Helbling Languages

Young learners might not be able to describe exactly how they feel, but they can respond to the images in the book, and by doing so they can notice similarities between themselves and the characters in the book. They may feel similar to Andy, the main character who is dealing with his fear, or they might be like one of his classmates and they can actually help someone else address their feelings.

The Dark in the Box

What's the story about? 

Andy loves the summer, the days are long and he can play in the sun with his friends. Andy likes the winter too. But in the winter the days are short and the nights are long. Andy doesn’t like nights. He doesn’t like the dark. Then one day Andy has an idea. What’s Andy’s idea and how can it help him to sleep at night?

Level B young reader written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Manuela Scarfò. The book contains a picture dictionary, before and after reading activities, a project and a CD-ROM with interactive activities and jazz chants.

Before you start reading the story...

Let the images do their work first. When your students flip through the book, they will slowly make some meaning through the colours on the pages. Each double page has a very strong colour palette, varying from  yellow to white, dark blue and black. These colours represent either a season or a time of the day and they might remind the readers of their own experiences and feelings at that time. Then get them to look at the characters and their facial gestures in order to understand what Andy, the main characters is feeling in each situation.

Positive change

The story  is circular: it moves from the happy summer scene with bright yellows through the pure winter mornings with the sparkling white, then into the dark blue and black shades of the night ending once more with bright warm colours in the safety of the boy's room. The boy learns to deal with his fears, and works his way through the darkness, finding his own solution (light), through acute observation thereby regaining the joyful atnosphere of the beginning with a newfound mturity and wisdom.

When you are reading story…

Read the story, one page at a time,  giving your students  enough time to explore each double page and point out things that they find interesting. Then, continue and go back to the beginning to retell the story. Young learners enjoy hearing the same story several times. Probably by the second or third time they will start commenting and creating their own version of the text.

After reading the story…

Do all the after reading activities and the arts and crafts project in the back of the book. Then, use the flashcards to practise the new vocabulary (both the textual and visual levels) and download the worksheets online, for lots of ideas on how to develop the story.

If you are interested in reading more stories which can help students implicitly engage with difficult situations and feelings, check out some of our other readers.

  • The Sun is Broken written by Andrés Pi Andreu and illustrated by Catty Flores
  • Dad for Sale written by Andrés Pi Andreu and illustrated by Enrique Martinez
  • The Beach written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Agilulfo Russo
  • The Big Wave written by Stefanella Ebhardt and illustrated by Anna Crema
  • Henry Harris Hates Haitches written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini

Some thoughts from Rick Sampedro, the writer of the story

HRB: What do you think of dealing with topics such as fear and loss in children's literature?

Rick: I think in a story for children magic can play a very interesting role and, as is the case with many young kids, darkness represents the things they are scared of or those that they feel threatened by or anxious about. So in an imaginary world, I reckon it would be perfect if we could get rid of those things through a quick magic fix, as in the story. The fact that Andy gets this idea of boxing it like his dad had done with the mouse to take it into the garden is a good way to show how creative young kids are and how important parents are as role models and examples.

Stories dealing with fear and loss allow children to address issues which they may not feel very comfortable with from an outside perspective. While they can relate to the character involved, they do not need to expose themselves to talk about them and they can decide how open they want to be about what's worrying them."

HRB: Where did the idea of the story come from?

Rick: My youngest son, Alvie, was really scared of the dark when he was a little child and although the magic didn't work in his case, I thought the idea was good.

HRB: Thank you for sharing, Rick!