The Heart and the Bottle: Grief and Hope in Children’s Literature.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. 

A review by Kate O’Brien.

The beginning of November is a time when many of us think about those who we have lost. 

It feels as though I am stating the obvious when I say that grieving can be a very difficult experience. Grief is a very complex feeling as many people grieve differently, and it is almost impossible to know how you will handle grief until something happens that makes you grieve.

Grief is a prominent theme in many, many works of literature as grief can be expressed in many different ways. When looking at children’s literature, the question of how does one approach the subject of grief with children is a difficult one. 

Unfortunately, children are not immune to bad experiences and loss, so to pretend that children are not impacted by grief would be unfair and unrealistic, however, grief is a complex feeling and so it is a complex topic to talk about in children’s fiction. 

I think it is important that children do see grief in stories, especially because children who are grieving themselves can see something that they relate to, and a story can have the power to be comforting. I also think that it is important that the topic is handled carefully, because while it is important to acknowledge that children do suffer loss and they do grieve too, it is also important that the information is given to children in a sensitive and age appropriate way, so that the story does provide comfort rather than cause more upset. 

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is a really beautiful story about grief. 

I love this book. I cried the first time I read it because I feel that it depicts grief in a very realistic way, without being too gloomy. The story does not diminish the impact of grief, it does show how much grief can impact one’s life, but there is hope and I think having that hope is very important. 

The story is about a little girl who is filled with wonder and curiosity. Her father fuels this curiosity by reading her lots of stories and answering all of her questions and encouraging her to explore the world and all of its wonders. The girl and her father are very close, so you can imagine how upset the girl was when one day she came downstairs only to find her father’s chair empty. 

That empty chair says everything. 

The little girl’s heart is heavy with grief, and she never wants anything to hurt her heart ever again so she puts it in a glass bottle to keep it safe. This works for a while, the girl feels nothing, but as she gets older, she learns that wrapping away your heart means that while you block out the grief, you’re also blocking out joys. When the girl decides it is time to take her heart back, she finds that it is not so easy to take it back out of the bottle. 

I love this story. I love how true it is. When you build a wall around your heart, it is extremely hard to knock it down again. It is hard to be vulnerable, it is hard to put yourself out there. It is hard to risk another heartbreak, but putting ourselves out there, caring about things, caring about others, loving others, that is where we find joy, but allowing our hearts to love and find joy, means that we risk grief. The risk is worth it though. 

When the little girl locked her heart away, she locked away all of her questions, her curiosity, her wonder, and she no longer took any notice of anything. Instead of locking away her grief, she became consumed by it because locking away your heart means that you are closing yourself off from life. The girl grows up and when she is a grown woman, she sees another little girl who is full of wonder, and this girl reminds the woman of all she has lost, prompting her to want to take her heart back. 

Despite the story highlighting how what started off as a coping mechanism slowly became something that was hurting the girl even more, demonstrating how much grief can consume a person, overall I found it to be a very hopeful tale. One that is about finding happiness again after a loss, and how even though it is difficult, it is worth it. 

Happiness can be found again, it does not mean that we are forgetting about those whom we miss. The little girl’s father always encouraged her wonder, and he would not want her to go through life without experiencing any joys. He would not want her to lose her curiosity. 

The first time I read this story, it made me very emotional and it still does. I still tear up a little when the girl takes her heart back. 

Taking your heart back does not mean that grief ends automatically, and it does not mean that you no longer think about those you miss, but taking your heart back means that you are allowing yourself to live fully again. You’re allowing yourself to experience joy and wonder again, and that is a very hopeful thing. 

If you haven’t read The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, I would highly recommend it. It is a very poignant read. If you have dealt with grief, I think this book is very relatable and very comforting, and if you have not experienced grief, then this book shines a light on how much grief can impact someone, so it is important to be kind and considerate as you never know how someone can be struggling, even if they pretend that everything is fine. 

Jeffers handles grief in a poignant and beautiful way, and I am very glad that I came across this story.

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