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What Ails Bibliotherapy?

Mention 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 concerns me.

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.

From the May/June 2006 Horn Book Magazine

Maeve Visser Knoth

Maeve Visser Knoth is a librarian at Phillips Brooks School, Menlo Park, ­California. She has chaired the Notable Children’s Books Committee and taught at Notre Dame de Namur University and Lesley University.

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