The Right Book at the Right Time - Emma Walton Hamilton


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Bibliotherapy helps kids overcome uncomfortable challenges with well-written books.
Author: 
by Emma Walton Hamilton

A well-written and well-timed book that addresses an issue or problem a child is wrestling with can be a godsend for the whole family. “Bibliotherapy,” as it’s commonly called, offers reassurance to a child that he or she is not alone, provides new ideas for coping strategies—and can even give some much-needed comic relief.  It also teaches children to turn to books for answers to questions or to solve problems in later life. From bed-wetting to bullying, peer pressure to sibling rivalry, the topics that classic children’s literature covers are limitless.

Despite its somewhat clinical-sounding name, bibliotherapy is not exclusive to therapists, librarians and teachers.  Parents and caregivers throughout the ages have turned to well-written stories and fables to instill values, give comfort, and help educate and inspire their children. What mother or father doesn’t want to help the child who is struggling, being bullied at school, or coping with a family trauma? Yet sometimes our best efforts to reach out can be undermined by a child’s discomfort in discussing a given subject, and even the most well intended advice can be met with resistance from a restless toddler or a defensive teenager. The power of bibliotherapy lies in the fact that children can learn from, and be comforted by, the challenges of fictional characters in a way that feels safely separate from, yet deeply relevant to, their own lives.

Helping a child find the perfect book that speaks to a need or issue can begin as early as toddlerhood, and continue well into young adulthood.   Bibliotherapy encompasses both fiction and non-fiction, though fiction is generally better with younger children.  By identifying with a compelling character who is wrestling with similar issues to his own, is a child can learn without realizing he is doing so.  A non-fiction book can sometimes be too “on the nose” or didactic, and can result in turning the young reader off rather than drawing him in.  This is different in young adulthood, when an adolescent may find it more helpful (and less embarrassing) to read books about puberty, for instance, than to discuss it—or may be interested in learning more about a sport or subject that is close to his heart.

Finding the right book at the right time can be surprisingly easy. The first and best resource is a good librarian, who will often know exactly what to recommend, but who at the very least will be able to assist you in researching the options.  There are also a number of books and websites that offer lists of recommendations pertaining to specific issues (see Recommended Resources below.) 

If you are choosing for a younger child, you will naturally be reading the book with him or her.  This can pave the way for meaningful follow up dialogue, though you will likely find it to be more successful if you avoid direct statements like, “So, NOW do you know what to do differently?” or “NOW do you understand?” and focus instead on discussing what choices the character made, whether or not your child liked the book, how it might have ended differently, and so forth.  If you are choosing for an older child, it may be helpful to let the child “discover” the book by finding it on the kitchen table, in his or her room, or in the bathroom.  Young adults may balk at something that feels “imposed” upon them by Mom or Dad, but may well pick it up themselves if they happen upon it without fear of embarrassment.  In these cases, it’s a good idea to read the book yourself as well –independently of your child—so that you can be prepared for any dialogue or questions that might ensue. 

The value of bibliotherapy is not contingent upon discussion, however.  There are other ways to explore and follow up on reading experiences, such as through drawing; journaling; composing alternate endings, scenes, or sequels; putting on shows; story telling; and play acting.  But regardless of age, if your child does open up as a result of reading a book, be more ready to listen than to speak, to ask questions than offer solutions, and to know when to move on to a different subject.  By remaining sensitive to and respectful of your child’s journey, you will greatly increase the chances of the book working its magic—and of the child turning to another book when the next need arises.

Recommended Resources

The following offer suggestions for books to use in bibliotherapy, sorted by topic.

Books to Grow With: A Guide to Using the Best Children’s Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges
by Cheryl Coon

Storybooks for Tough Times
by Laura Ann Campbell

Bibliotherapy: The Girl's Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives
by Nancy Peske and Beverly West

Bibliotherapy – Using Children’s Books to Address Children’s Problems
by Steve Barancik
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Just Write for Kids CourseEMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and arts educator. She has co-authored twenty children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews, five of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list. Her own book, Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment (find @ your library), premiered as a #1 best-seller on Amazon.com in the literacy category.  Emma is a faculty member of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Writing and Literature Program, where she directs the annual Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, and is Executive Director of the Young American Writers Project, an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students. She also works as a freelance children’s book editor and teaches picture book writing courses at the university and online. Visit emmawaltonhamilton.com for details.


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