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Themes in Young Readers Part 1: Daily Life, Magic and Mythology

January 24, 2014 by Nora Nagy

When we enter the world of books for young learners of English, we find ourselves in an exciting universe. The world of Helbling Young Readers is a colourful and lively place with lots of emotions, humour, cultural resources and important social and environmental topics to discuss. They are also the solution for an important issue teachers have to deal with: the language of stories young learners read. What we might consider a successful and beloved story in our students’ first language can turn out to be challenging in translation. This is why original or adapted stories written specifically for young English learners are the key to a successful reading program with young learners.

However, choosing the right level is not enough. We also have to choose stories our children can connect to both emotionally and intellectually. Young children’s interest in stories rapidly changes as they grow and develop. However, there are themes that stay with them: they always look for humour, adventure, danger and familiar, everyday topics. Children’s stories work like children’s games: they are similar to role plays, where anything can happen, where we stage conflicts, relive and solve problems, and travel to places that are hard to visit in real life. In these stories we also deal with everyday problems and revisit everyday happiness. Stories and games serve as moral, intellectual and emotional support that will prepare our children for life, which is imitated in the secure world of their stories.

Two Hungarian child psychologists, Ferenc Mérei and Ágnes V. Binet describe the role of tales in young children’s development. Young children show interest mostly in the familiar, everyday things, objects they can connect to. They love dialogues, and they love details in their stories. They need reinforcement on the things they know about the world. (pp. 239-255) Let’s see how this world is represented in some of the Helbling Young Readers.

Daily Life: Familiar Places and Faces

The most familiar subjects young learners can relate to are school, family and friends, neighbours, and their immediate environment. It is especially important for a language learner to read about familiar situations as they easily connect to them.

How does a young boy feel on the first day at school? The language and cultural barriers, especially in the English classroom can be intimidating for a young child. Rick Sampedro’s Level 'a' reader, Can I Play? takes us through Billy’s first day at school. No one wants to talk to him first, and everyone speaks in an incomprehensible language. This story of acceptance, understanding and finding friends will make your students feel good about a familiar yet often stressful situation.

Have you ever wondered what your cat does when you are not at home? It is a very similar inquiry to a child’s guesses about what their parents are doing when they are away from them (Mérei-Binet, 240). The Level 'd' reader, Fat Cat’s Busy Day by Maria Cleary explores the secret adventures of an orange tabby cat in an entertaining way, adds the excitement children desire in a story, and does it all in the most familiar place, the family home.

Skater Boy by Maria Cleary (Level d) tells us the story of Skater Boy, the elusive rebel-hero every young child dreams of meeting or becoming and discover he is not so rebellious or elusive after all.

Introducing Sensitive Topics and Social Issues

Level 'a'  reader, The Beach by Rick Sampedro doesn’t only take us on a journey, but it also introduces a very sensitive topic: immigration. Two families are travelling to the beach: one is a happy family going on holiday, the other one is an immigrant family arriving at the beach in a boat. They both have little girls: one of them feels excited, the other one scared. The story brings these two worlds wonderfully together.

The Kite by Rick Sampedro (Level b) is a colourful story that takes us to the world of conflicts and tension ending with a playful resolution. We read how small acts of kindness can help people overcome disagreement and let go of their anger just like letting a kite fly freely in the air. The children of these neighbouring families are more responsible than their parents, and together they manage to show their parents the error of their ways.

Henry Harris Hates Haitches by Maria Cleary (Level d) is what every shy student should read. Young readers love humour, and laughter really works as the best medicine in this book. Henry, a boy, who can’t say the letter ‘H’ becomes a hero by saving his friend and at the same time magically learns to pronounce the letter he feared so much.

The Magical and the Imaginary

The world of tales also serves as the world of magic. This is the place where everything is possible, where your imagination can run wild, and where we do not have to explain why extraordinary things happen.

The Sun is Broken by Andrés Pi Andreu raises the very important questions of loss and death in a little girl’s life. The little girl’s vivid imagination brings a mailcow to life so that she can communicate with her grandma who has just died. The story reminds us of the power of magic and imagination and how a young child’s approach to dealing with our life's reality can teach something about life to her parents.

Upside Down by Rick Sampedro (Level e) takes us to a topsy-turvy world, and two children will have to put things back in order. This story also introduces children as responsible individuals, who can save their town and help their parents.

Myths for Kids

Elements of myth, legends and folktales have inspired a lot of contemporary novels and films, and our students are often not even aware of the presence of motifs taken from legends or myths in their favourite stories. Reading mythological stories is important because of the universal knowledge they offer. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur retold by Richard Northcott teaches us about King Minos and his terrible minotaur and brave Theseus who decides to challenge the monster. As with many myths, the resolution is bittersweet and  it raises the moral questions of respect and responsibility towards our parents.

Successful children's stories are both educational and entertaining  and they assist our young learner’s language development as well as build their knowledge of the world. They also help them understand their place in life in relation to other people and their environment.

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