Below a black night sky sits a dark house. In the dark house is a dark bedroom with a dark closet and a very small child in a very small bed. In the dark bedroom shadows shift and sway. In the dark closet something scratches and scurries and thumps and bumps. The small child alone in bed stares at the closet expecting a monster to jump out and…This is the experience of many children in the preschool and primary grades. Children of this age are afraid of many things but especially monsters, the dark, and thunderstorms. Entertaining and engaging books enable children not only to learn how to cope with these specific fears and their lesser cousin anxiety, but also provide foundational knowledge and skills for learning how to cope with later experiences: the first day of school, the inevitable book report in front of the class, spelling tests, fear of looking “dumb” or failing at baseball, gymnastics, dance or another activity.
In the Posts below I discuss six entertaining and engaging books that have long been loved by parents and children and some new ones that will probably also be loved over several generations. These books provide insight about what fuels fear and what can be done to cope with fear:
Publisher: Philomel Books, 1990
Format: Picture Book
Interest Level, Primary Grades (K-3)
Review by Terry Northcutt, Ph.D.
In some situations children require the comforting presence and reassurance of adults to cope with fear. Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake recounts the day her grandmother helped her learn how to cope with fear when she was a child. For Patricia Polacco steamy summer days with bright jagged streaks of lightning and rumbling thunder signaled hiding-under-the-bed weather. For her Babushka, they signaled Thunder Cake baking weather. For parents and children reading the book they provide a recipe for an adult and child to cooperate in successfully moving through fear.
The first ingredient in the Grandmother’s recipe for coping with fear is a stern, no nonsense command: “Child, you come out from under that bed. It’s only thunder you’re hearing.” Cold, heartless, insensitive to the cowering child? Some adults would interpret it to be; some children might also experience it that way. But this is not the grandmother’s only ingredient for conquering fear.
Patricia’s Babushka is rational and pragmatic. Certainly, she does not cuddle Patricia in her lap while reading her a story or inviting her to play a game to distract her from the storm. She does not ask her granddaughter why she is afraid of the storm. And, she does not ask her granddaughter what she might do to help herself feel better during the storm. These are valid, time-honored approaches for helping a child cope with fear and for some children, perhaps, better approaches. But Patricia’s Babushka is not a talker, she is a doer.
And so sitting in a rocking chair, she envelopes Patricia in her arms and tells her they are going to make a Thunder Cake. But it will only be a real Thunder Cake, if they mix the ingredients and have it in the oven before the storm arrives. To distract Patricia from her fear of the thunder and to create a sense of urgency to help her overcome her paralysis, the grandmother instructs Patricia to count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, this will tell her how many miles the storm must travel to reach them.
But gathering the ingredients for the Thunder Cake involves more than pulling bags and bottles and boxes off the shelves then mixing their contents. Eggs must be gathered from Nellie Peck Hen, milk from mean Kick Cow, chocolate from the dark, dry shed on a path through Tangleweed Woods, and overripe tomatoes (the secret ingredient) from a vine that can only be reached by climbing high on a trellis. As Patricia gathers the ingredients, lightning slashes the sky and thunder bellows. Counting proves that the storm is moving closer and closer and closer. Patricia may have been overwhelmed by her fear if she had only been commanded to get out from under the bed and then encouraged to count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. But her grandmother walks beside her every step of the way nudging, supporting, and encouraging with a softly spoken “I’m here, child” and “Hurry now” to keep her moving through the tasks and through the fear.
Grandma’s final ingredient is to tell Patricia how brave she was for getting out from under the bed and gathering the ingredients for the cake. Patricia’s reward is a large slice of chocolate cake with a strawberry on top and the knowledge that she can successfully manage fear.
Polacco’s illustrations prevent children hearing the story from being overwhelmed by fear. Generous portions of white space in combination with bright patterns in clothes, rugs, and furniture indicative of the grandmother’s Ukrainian heritage overwhelm thoughts of hens that peck, mean cows that kick, dark sheds, and the impending storm. Her renderings of the grandmother include a stern posture at times with a pointing finger, but also a soft comforting face, a round body with an ample lap to sit on, and generous hugging arms. Polacco’s renderings of facial expressions, gestures, and body postures are so vivid the viewer is privy to every thought and feeling of child and grandmother as events unfold that deepen their warm and secure relationship.
Grandma’s Ingredients for Coping with Fear
So what are the ingredients for this grandmother’s recipe for mastering fear? An expectation that the child can face fear and move through it successfully; coping techniques such as distraction, combined with tasks that enable the child to shift from paralysis to movement despite the fear; a reassuring hug, a supportive presence, something pleasant to look forward to; and a no-nonsense declaration that only a brave person could have faced the hen, the cow, the dark woods, and the high trellis