the May/June 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
What Ails Bibliotherapy?
the word bibliotherapy, and children’s librarians
and booksellers have similar tales to tell. The stories go something
like this: a well-intentioned parent comes in and asks for a book
about death. When questioned further, she explains that her child’s
grandmother is dying and the child needs some books to help her
understand what is happening. The librarian or bookseller suggests
several picture books that deal, in one way or another, with death.
Each time the woman is handed a book, the librarian or bookseller
tells her a little about it. Each time, the woman rejects the choice.
“No, The Tenth Good Thing about Barney won’t
do. It’s a book about a dog dying. I told you it was a grandmother.
No, Grandpa Abe won’t do either because that book
is about a grandfather. Oh, no, I know you said this next
lovely book is about a grandmother, but the grandma in this book
has cancer. My daughter’s grandma is dying from congestive
heart failure.” And so it goes. The parent is looking for
a book that exactly mirrors her own life.
Teachers also, with the very best of intentions,
search for books that will address the emotional lives of the children
in their care. One student’s family is going through a divorce,
so let’s gather some divorce stories to help him. Another
child is experiencing the jealousy that often surfaces with a new
baby in the house, so let’s read her some of those new-baby
picture books. There are excellent books on each of these subjects.
Why am I, as a librarian and parent, so reluctant to hand them over?
The more I think about my aversion to this type
of bibliotherapy, the more I define my own approach to children
and books as “advance” bibliotherapy. Rather than address
what is happening in the present, I am inclined to prepare children
for emotional experiences before they occur. I would rather
inoculate children than treat the symptoms of the emotional trauma.
We give children vaccinations against measles. We can’t vaccinate
against divorce, but we can give children some emotional
knowledge to use when their families, or other families they know,
do go through a divorce. I advocate that we read picture books about
death and divorce and new babies when no one is dying, when a marriage
is strong, before anyone is pregnant.
I don’t have reams of research to back up
my approach to reading, but I do have years of observations from
working with children in the library and in classrooms and, more
personally, some experiences from my own life as a reader and the
lives of my children. I, like many of us who grew up to become children’s
librarians, read a great deal as a child. I gleaned lots of information
from the many different kinds of books I read; certainly much of
it was concrete. I knew the names of neighborhoods in New York City
long before I ever visited because so many children’s novels
are set there. I knew what an egg cream was because I read Harriet
the Spy. But this is not the kind of information I am concerned
with. All adults do, and should, recommend books to children when
a child needs factual information. It is emotional content that
When I was in sixth grade, the mother of one of
my classmates died from cancer. She was ill only briefly, and her
death was a surprise to the family and to all who knew her. I had
been in school with Jill for three years. Ours was a small school,
so we all knew Jill’s mother. We knew what kind of cupcakes
she was likely to pack in Jill’s lunch and what kind of car
she drove on field trips. The death of a parent had been, up to
that time, unthinkable to me. I remember that I worried about my
own mother, but more than that, I remember knowing that Jill’s
behavior might be affected by her mother’s death. I remember
thinking that if Jill refused to take turns on the monkey bars or
pushed her way to the head of the lunch line, she might be doing
these things because she was sad. No adult ever told me this, but
I had read scores of books about children without parents. I knew
that the orphaned Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden was
a terrible brat not because she wanted to be but because she was
miserable. Children’s books are filled with motherless characters,
and so I understood, on an emotional level, what it might be like
to be motherless.
Years later, during a summer vacation when I was
in high school, my family read Madeleine L’Engle’s A
Ring of Endless Light together. A couple of years later, my
grandmother died. I was in college, but this was the first time
that a close relative had died, so I was experiencing for the first
time some of the emotional responses I had already met in books.
I remember thinking about L’Engle’s book. In the novel,
Vicky’s grandfather is dying. When Vicky talks to him, he
describes one possibility for life after death. He explains that
a blind person could not imagine the richness that sight adds to
a human’s life. What if, he wonders, death is like adding
a new sense? What if it would be like giving sight to a blind person?
What if after death human souls gain something that wonderful? Death
might offer a tremendous new possibility. I was palpably comforted
by that possibility. Maybe my grandmother was in fact experiencing
something wonderful. Yes, I missed her, but I could not deny her
this new gift. Over the years my own ideas of death, and the possibility
of life after death, have evolved, but for those weeks, L’Engle’s
suggestion made an enormous difference to me. I am not even sure
that I remembered the book correctly, but that did not matter. I
took what I needed from the novel and applied it to the events in
my life. Would the book have proved to be as powerful if a librarian
had handed it to me upon hearing the news that my grandmother had
recently died? I don’t know, but I do know that having a well
of emotional knowledge to draw on — knowledge I got from a
book — helped.
Fast forward many years. I now have two children
and can observe and contribute to their own reading choices. I try
to avoid direct bibliotherapy, although of course we read books
for factual information. We read Doctor De Soto before
visiting the dentist for the first time, and I shared Janet and
Allan Ahlberg’s Starting School when that time came. But I
also make a point of reading about the “hard” stuff
long before my children might need the emotional information. We
have read books about experiencing racism, books about difficulties
adjusting to a new school and town, and books in which children
are dealing with alcoholic parents.
Sharing emotionally complex books before a difficult
experience occurs may give children the ability to practice their
own personal bibliotherapy. Several days after our pet rat died,
my daughter, Anya, found Robie H. Harris’s Goodbye Mousie
on the shelf and read it to herself again and again. When, at age
four, she broke her arm, she searched the shelves for Lynne Rae
Perkins’s The Broken Cat and kept it on her bedside
table as a daily selection until her arm finished healing. In both
these cases she already knew these stories and sought them out herself.
Anya decided when she was ready to read about the death of a beloved
pet. Anya decided that she needed to revisit the story of injury
and healing. My only contribution was a full, varied home bookshelf
and a willingness to read to her almost any book she picks out.
My main objection to bibliotherapy as practiced
by many parents and teachers is that books, for all the good they
do, can be limiting and can be too close to a situation. As much
as I like Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson’s Goodbye,
with its poetic description of a child going through the stages
of grief, I worry that the child who hears the story while experiencing
grief will find it simplistic. What if, after thirty-two pages,
the reader does not feel better? What if he feels worse?
Will he feel that he has failed because Everett Anderson’s
grief is now all wrapped up and the book is closed? Similarly, does
the child who is living through his mother’s breast cancer
treatments want to revisit them in fiction? Would he not rather
escape to Narnia? I am not a therapist and don’t pretend to
know. There certainly are bound to be legitimate times for using
books to help children with complex emotional issues. As a parent
and librarian, all I can do is continue to try to inoculate children.
I can continue reading a wide variety of books aloud to children
in the library and to incorporate some of those tough or sad books
in story hours even when I know that the funnier, less emotionally
charged stories are the crowd-pleasers, the easy sell. I can make
sure that I don’t isolate the death books off in a ghetto
with other issue books where they will only be found when a parent
or teacher asks specifically for one. And I can continue to recommend
books to parents telling them why, from my own experience, I believe
they need to read all kinds of emotionally complex books to their
children. Read Bridge to Terabithia aloud to your kids
even if it does make you cry. Consider it a kind of vaccination.
Visser Knoth is currently a children’s librarian for the
San Mateo County Library in San Mateo, California. She has,
over the years, worked as a public librarian, school librarian,
teacher, and bookseller, and is a reviewer for The Horn
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