In a recent issue of Books for Keeps , Colin Chapman assessed non-fiction and fiction titles with drugs as a theme for young adult readers (‘Drugs and Teen Publishing: How Does It Score? BfK 118 ). But what about very young children? Can books help early drugs education? Noreen Wetton explains.
‘Can you recommend some books to help us tackle the problem of drugs?’ is a question that I am often asked by teachers and students, parents and others involved with young children. It is clear they are echoing some real concerns about the present ‘drugs scene’ so vividly portrayed in the media as threatening younger and younger children. They want to do the right thing – not start too soon – not leave it too late, but they are not sure what the right thing to do is. A list of books could be the answer, perhaps.
The White Paper
Teachers are also looking for ways to put into practice the Government White Paper* which states that there should be a comprehensive drug education for younger children from the age of five. How can they do this without causing fears and alarms among the children and their families? Surely seven is too young, let alone five! How is childhood innocence, so rapidly disappearing, to be preserved from the drugs scene at least? Isn’t it a topic better left until they are – well, ten years old? Isn’t that the time when drugs start to be a problem? Aren’t we in danger of exciting their interest?
I have had these questions put to me many times. My reply is to ask some questions of my own. Questions such as:
‘Are you seeing drugs and drug education as being mainly concerned with illegal drugs?’
‘Are you asking for books which will help to prevent young children from becoming drug users – drug addicts even?’
‘Are you asking for books which give children the facts about illegal drugs?’
If the answer to these questions is, ‘Well, yes. I suppose so. But books suitable for these youngest children, nothing scary’, I have to say that for me, no book can do that safely. In fact, starting with such a narrow view of drugs could threaten the security of some children. They may begin to see all drugs as illegal and likely to kill instantly and imagine this as happening to themselves or someone close to them. It is even more dangerous if the book uses a thinly disguised story line. We all know the power of a story line even if we recognise that underneath is an even more powerful message. It does not have to be literature. Remember the coffee and the car adverts where the story line captured many of us, even against our will?
A drug using world
On the other hand, if what we really want to do for our children is help them to develop the skills of living in a rapidly changing drug using world, positively, confidently and safely, then books can be both a starting point and much much more.
If we want our children to be able, now and in the future, to use medicines wisely, to understand that all medicines are drugs but not all drugs are medicines – books can help.
If we want children to handle the situational pressures around the so called ‘social’ drugs, tobacco and alcohol, in a balanced informed way then books are critical to the task. If we want children to develop their skills so that they can, later on, deal with the pressures and dangers of illegal substances, then we have to start early – as early as we can. For these youngest children, books – the right books, can be the secure, non-threatening but honest start they are entitled to.
We need to remind ourselves that children bring to every topic we introduce, every book we share, all the discussion which arises, their own picture of the world, their perceptions and misconceptions, the skills and knowledge they already have (or think they have). Above all they bring their finely honed skill of making sense of the world around them, out of everything they see, hear, and mis-hear. They are experts at making their own ‘logical’ sense out of all this. That this sense is in fact a ‘non-sense’ is what frequently makes us smile to ourselves, but we must never dismiss it simply as childish nonsense. Rather should we take it as a reminder of their skill and keep it in mind as we prepare to tackle the new topic of a drug using world. We may think it is new while they will be bringing a lot to it, more than we imagine, and what they bring may well be a dangerous or worrying non-sense.
So, where do we begin? With this new view of what we are trying to do for and with children, which books will help us develop these skills and present appropriate information honestly but not threateningly?
Under our noses
The books, for the most part, are under our noses – or if not there exactly, they are in our book corners or on our bookshelves. They will not mention drugs; they may not look as though they could be made to be about drugs, but they are there – among our most loved children’s picture books.
I make a plea here for picture books not to be seen as the province only of the very youngest children. I use them to good effect with older children and with adults. If they are books which draw in the reader with the quality of their language and illustration, if the storyline can be unpicked, if the characters who go into the book come out at the end having learned something about themselves or about life itself, then there is no age limit to their delight or their use.
Focus on skills
Look for books where some of the skills of growing up confidently and safely in a drug using world have an important role, where the characters use or fail to use these skills, where, had they known how to use them, the story might have ended differently.
Which skills are important? I would suggest these:
discovering your own strengths
standing your ground
recognising pressure and persuasion
seeing the critical moment in a story
seeing that there are outcomes to behaviour and that alternative outcomes are possible
knowing when and how to refuse
knowing how to find a trusted adult to confide in
having an emotional vocabulary wide enough to put feelings into words.
A far cry from the over simplistic ‘Just say “No” to Drugs’ approach and far more demanding – but in terms of finding books to help us begin, much easier than it might have seemed at first.
I suggest using The Dark at the Top of the Stairs which is about recognising risk, or in this case failing to recognise it until almost too late. It is the story, with just the right kind of scary pictures, of a wise old mouse and his young mice who live together in a cellar. All his suggestions of favourite activities for the next day are dismissed in favour of investigating the dark at the top of the stairs where the monster lives. The old mouse knows that sooner or later the young will want to take the risks so he allows them to go. At the top of the stairs the monster’s shadow moves towards them and breathes out one strange word ‘ M I A O W”. The mice tumble headlong to safety helped along by some wonderfully tumbling language. They decide that for the time being they will stay with what they know and be content with swinging on the long grass in the cornfields.
Once you have shared the story you can begin to unpick it to focus on risks and feelings, to re-create the feelings as the mice went up the stairs, heard the monster, perhaps collecting up the children’s words in a circle of feelings. You can ask the children to think about the moment when the mice set off, to ask:
‘If you had been there, what would you have said?’
‘How would you have persuaded the mice to stop and think?’
You could talk about the places where children themselves play, the happy places, the ones where they feel safe. You could then lead on to think about the places where the danger is not a monster at the top of the stairs, but some person trying to persuade them, saying
‘Taste this; try these new sweets; sniff this; puff this; try a sip of this.’
Together you will have come to the moment when you can talk about the dangers of sniffing something, smoking a cigarette, tasting something. The children will have more to add to the list. You can talk about the dangers of touching or picking up needles and syringes and practise a safe routine of ‘stop – don’t touch – tell’. You can practise dealing with these persuaders, saying ‘No, not me! That’s stupid. That’s dangerous’, and walking away. You can remind them that what they are practising can be used in other situations. Finally read the story again. Put it together again, return to the sheer delight of a second reading, a second look at the pictures, but with a new assurance that they, in the same situation, would have done better.
Tackle the notion of addiction, once again using your best loved books. Find stories where the characters eat too much of something and can’t give it up. Try The Very Hungry Caterpillar who ate and ate and needed medicine and rest to recover or A Piece of Cake where each member of the family became addicted, unknown to the others. Read Six Dinner Sid with the children and find a wonderful non-threatening way into the topic of addiction. Six Dinner Sid lends itself to introducing not only addictive behaviour but many other key concepts central to understanding the world of drugs. In this story you find:
a cat who is addicted to six dinners a day, and who glories in this lifestyle
a cat who is an opportunist, persuasive, manipulative and a charmer of people
a group of people who do not know how to communicate with each other and so do not see what is happening around them
a new set of people who know the importance of communication
an ending which poses the questions ‘Does he need a second chance? Will his new owners help him to break his addiction?’
You can ask the children how they would feel if they had to give up some favourite food or drink, and remind them that giving up, even something not harmful, is not easy. You can finish with the warning that taking more than the correct dose of medicine, as Sid did, is dangerous. Your second reading will be heard by the children in a different way.
Once you have raised these issues you can move on to stories where characters share their worries, gain in self esteem, cope with difficult situations, have courage to be themselves.
I’ll take you to Mrs Cole , Emma’s Lamb , The Lion Who Wanted to Love and The Huge Bag of Worries are all useful titles.
This could be the time to move to using information books. Try books which give clear information about visiting doctors, clinics, hospitals, about treatments, medicines and getting better. Look at books which explain some specific childhood illnesses and disabilities, describing them positively and truthfully and some which show how children’s lives can depend on drug use – temporarily or permanently.
For this kind of extension activity, encourage the children to go off in pairs or small groups, to read through one or more of the books. Ask them to bring back to the whole class what they have learned. Some could look at books which set out to describe feelings, but remember that these are one person’s view of how specific feelings are expressed and portrayed. The children will want to add their own views, pictures, photographs, drawings. But always return to the picture books via which we can take our youngest children into situations where we would never dare or want to take them in real life.
In the best of stories we can share experiences, hold our breath, sigh with relief, feel the fears and joys, the risks and dangers, always in the safe knowledge that it is happening in a book, that when we have read it again, we can close it and put it away – until another day. And no doubt when that other day comes we will find more in it than we did last time.
Noreen Wetton is an Education Consultant and the author of Confidence to Learn .
* Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain , 1977, HMSO
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs , Sam McBratney, ill. Ivan Bates, Walker, 0 7445 3746 0, £8.99 hbk, 0 7445 5405 5, £5.99 pbk
The Very Hungry Caterpillar , Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01798 X, £11.00 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 050087 1, £4.99 pbk
A Piece of Cake , Jill Murphy, Walker, 0 7445 5595 7, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6003 9, £4.99 pbk
Six Dinner Sid , Inga Moore, Macdonald, 0 7500 0304 9, £4.99 pbk, 0 7500 2424 0, £12.99 big book
I’ll take you to Mrs Cole , Nigel Gray, ill. Michael Foreman, Andersen, 0 86264 407 0, £4.99 pbk
Emma’s Lamb , Kim Lewis, Walker, 0 7445 2031 2, £4.99 pbk
The Lion Who Wanted to Love , Giles Andreae, ill. David Wojtowycz, Orchard, 1 86039 441 8, £9.99 hbk, 1 86039 913 4, £4.99 pbk
The Huge Bag of Worries , Virginia Ironside, ill. Frank Rodgers, Macdonald, 0 7500 2124 1, £4.99 pbk, 0 7500 2626 X, £15.99 big book