Even Hamsters Get the Blues

I Have Feelings – Jana Novotny-Hunter and Sue Porter – review

It’s often said that one of the reasons toddlers have tantrums is because they lack the words to effectively communicate their feelings. Theoretically then, a book specifically designed to help toddlers to understand and express their emotions should result in a happier child who throws fewer tantrums. ‘I Have Feelings’ is such a book. It’s written by Jana Novotny Hunter and illustrated by Sue Porter, who between them have produced many books and won several awards.

The characters consist of a family of four hamsters; a mummy and daddy hamster who have a toddler and baby. (Obviously from this you will gather that they are anthropomorphous, or ‘people hamsters’ as my daughter would call them). The story is told from the viewpoint of the toddler hamster and shows how his emotions change throughout the day; happy when he first wakes up, proud because he can do up all his buttons, and so on. Other emotions expressed are; sad, excited, jealous, kind, angry, scared and love. Each emotion is described and has a reason, all of which most toddlers should be able to relate to.

The text begins with a rhyme on the first page which is repeated on the last and explains how ‘everyone has feelings’. The rest of the book is prose, but quite poetic. Most of the emotions are explained very well; ‘excited’ is “feeling so speedy-fast inside, I just can’t stop jumping about,” this is on the way to the park, but once there; “wanting and _wanting_ my turn is taking up all the room inside me,” explains the feeling of jealousy when baby sister gets first go on the swing.

There were one or two emotions that I felt could have been better explained, or had clearer examples. It was baby hamster for example, who expressed the emotion ‘sad’. The baby hamster didn’t look sad to me, it looked like it was throwing a gigantic wobbly. There was no reason shown here, just a screaming fit. It could be argued that the book needs to be simplistic and tears are associated with sadness, but I still don’t think this was the most apt way to describe the emotion ‘sad.’

I also have my reservations about the ‘scared’ example, although for different reasons. At bedtime little hamster feels all ‘shivery’ because ‘angry monsters are coming’. If you have a child that suffers from bad dreams or is scared of the dark, I can see that this section seems like it could reassure them, maybe help to normalise their fear and perhaps help them explain and understand. However, I think this section actually introduced the idea of monsters at bedtime to my daughter. I don’t think it scared her, rather gave her the idea that it was okay to copy the behaviour – imitation is a big part of being a small child and my daughter has certainly imitated this part of the book, which has led me to silently curse it in the middle of the night, upon being called in to shoo away monsters that never previously existed. On a more positive note my daughter has also imitated the ‘love’ section as well and it’s lovely to hear an affectionate toddler tell you – ‘I can feel a cuddle coming down my arms.’

Sue Porter’s watercolour illustrations are done in a cutesy, playful style and are pretty effective at showing the intended emotions, both on the character’s faces and in the colours used. For example, the scared hamster is shown surrounded by wobbly dark blue colours closing in on him, whereas bright red shoots straight out from the angry hamster. The words also help to emphasize the emotions with a big ‘angry’ having lots of harsh lines as though someone has pressed hard to write it, whereas ‘love’ is all curvy and soft.

Stories are a great way to explore feelings and this book provides a fun way to discuss emotions with little ones. However, emotional exploration can also be done with stories that don’t necessarily concentrate so obviously on feelings, but rather incorporate those emotions into a story, (Shirley Hughes’ ‘Alfie’ stories are a good example). If a child has a problem with a specific emotion I think a story more tailored to their particular situation would be better, maybe something that explores one emotion in depth. ‘I Have Feelings’ is quite basic and the fact that it covers several emotions means that there is less space to explore each individual emotion. Because of this more generalised feel, I think it would be well suited to a nursery or classroom situation.

 I bought this for my daughter when she was around two and a half. She’s had it for over a year at the time of writing and although it’s never been one of her favourites, she does like it and it gets picked off the bedtime story shelf now and again. I think she’s outgrown it a little. On the inside cover, before the story starts there is a page of hamster faces, each with a different expression. This is the part of the book my daughter likes the best. Have you ever tried to guess how a hamster feels by the expression on it’s face? I have. Many times. (“What’s that one saying? What’s that one saying? What about that one…and that one,” then back to the start.) I find it a bit boring to read it with her.

So, back to the point I made in my opening paragraph; has this book helped my daughter communicate her feelings more effectively? It’s hard to say. It may well have helped her understand some of the subtle differences between emotions such as jealousy and anger, but I doubt it’s had any real influence on her emotional development. Talking about real life situations as they happen is undoubtedly a more powerful way of dealing with emotions, a child’s family environment is what really matters and I fear the answers to tantrums are not to be found in books. Still, although it’s quite basic and unlikely have a long bookshelf life, ‘I Have Feelings’ is a sweet book that could be useful to parents who think their children could do with some extra help with emotional expression. If that’s the case then it couldn’t do any harm to give it a try.

Further Details: Paperback: 32 pages Publisher: Frances Lincoln; New edition edition (5 Sep 2002) Product Dimensions: 26.4 x 21 x 0.6 cm Currently priced £5.19 on Amazon.co.uk

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