Defining and Using Bibliotherapy

By Kathy Mobley

kathyBibliotherapy can be defined as the use of books to help people solve problems.  But it is much more than that and understanding its value and use is important to social workers.  The use of literature in the treatment of people with emotional problems has been well documented, and dates back for decades.

Recent studies have shown bibliotherapy to be effective in changing children’s behavior and can also help them when they are experiencing difficult times.  Therapists and social workers can help a child increase their self understanding and become better at expressing their feelings.  A social practitioner needs to create a trusting relationship when working with a child.  Reading aloud provides an excellent opportunity to develop that trust.  That is only the first step in the value of bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is the use of books to help children cope, understand and heal.  The following five values highlight the benefits of bibliotherapy for children.

Free Expression is Encouraged 

Many therapists believe that children use repression and denial to deal with traumatic events in their lives.  This means much of what troubles a child is often hidden from their own conscious minds.  When a child is able to read about another child who is facing the same serious problems, they may be able to gain insight into a hidden problem.  Using bibliotherapy with this approach allow children to feel more comfortable so they are better able to talk about difficult issues they may have kept secret.

Helps Children Analyze their Problems

When a child reads about a story character that they are able to identify with, they are better able to examine their own thoughts as well.   Some children will share their thoughts about the character with the practitioner, while others will reflect silently, where they feel completely safe in their own thoughts.  In either situation, the child benefits from identifying with a character.  Studies have shown that illustrations in books nurture daydreams which could be considered therapeutic if the character in the story deals with similar problems of that child.  Animal characters specifically encourage daydreaming because they are neutral as far as age, sex and race.

Books Teach by Providing Information

Issues such as divorce, sex, and drugs previously had not been dealt with in children’s literature.  Children today typically confront these issues regularly.   You can find these subjects in both fiction and non-fiction books.  Children have access to the many questions and issues of life in books available to them.  A book on divorce can help a child cope with how their life will change after mom and dad separate.  A child reacting to the shock of going to foster care may gain some insight by reading a book about a similar child going to foster care who learns to adjust to this major event in their life.  Perhaps reading a book such as, “You’re Not My Real Mother!” by Molly Friedrich could allow a child to talk about the feelings they are experiencing or questions they have because they don’t look like their adoptive mom or dad.

It is important for the practitioner to insure that the suggested book is appropriate for that particular child.  They should be completely knowledgeable of it prior to reading it with a child or suggesting it for a child to read on their own.   

Books Promote Relaxation

Re-reading a favorite book over and over creates a felling of comfort and security for a child.  Many caregivers can “read” certain books to a child without even looking at the page.  They have read it aloud so many times they have memorized the lines.  Books offer emotional relief for children with anxiety.  This is especially true when they read about other children with the same problems.  Having something in common with a character in a book reduces the isolation of the child and allows them a feeling of security.

Books Provide New Coping Skills and are Fun 

Quite often a child finding a solution to their problem is a solitary activity.  Books can encourage the activity of finding new solutions to their problems.  Using their imagination is not only fun and relaxing; it can help them sort through difficult situations in their lives.  Learning to value books as a child can typically ensure reading will be a part of their adult life. 

Life Books are an excellent therapeutic tool.  They embody the benefits outlined above.  Other reading materials of course can be used along with Life Books depending on the age and circumstances of the child.  Older children may benefit from non-fiction accounts that they can relate to while younger children find benefits in fictional stories such as fairy tales and picture books.

Outlined below are four different types of books along with their benefits.

Short Stories:  Fiction

When a specific problem is presented in a work of fiction, that book can be a good choice for bibliotherapy.  Children will develop sympathy for a character having problems.  This can assist in creating trust between a child and a practitioner. Reading about and understanding a character in a fiction book can help a child cope with their own problems.


Biographies:  Non Fiction

A nonfiction book which has characters that mirror or are similar to a child can assist him or her better cope with issues.  Books are available about people with a wide spectrum of problems; from a difficult foster home situation to caring for a sick family member.  If a child can identify with someone in the story, that nonfiction book is a good match.  Teenagers specifically are able to successfully confront and later cope with their problems when they read about a real life story they can identify with.

Fairy Tales

For years, fairy tales have been a favorite way for children to learn about how to solve problems.  They give a simple portrayal of universal problems and fears that children confront.  They encourage children to use their imaginations as a strategy for problem solving.  

Of course most parents/professionals would prefer to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle as compared to Rapunzel which can be somewhat of a dark tale.  Dad locking the poor girl up in a tower is a little scary.  Many old fairy tales told today are actually sanitized forms of the original.  This fits right in with the importance of the right book choice.  The story chosen by the professional needs to help the child, not intensify their problem.  Even if a story does not intensify the problem, the child could miss the point of the story due to an unrelated part of the tale that frightens or shocks them.

Picture Books

Picture books are a delightful way for a child to enjoy a story.  Another benefit is that children are able to project their feelings and perceptions onto the books characters.  This can help them reveal their own problems.  This is a nonthreatening way for a younger child to tell their own story and perhaps create coping skills while working with a therapist.

Life Books should be a part of the bibliotherapy tool chest.  They help foster and adoptive children connect to their current situation as well as their beginnings.  They create a living history for children dealing with a chaotic past.  They help answer questions about birth families, helping them make sense of loss, trauma and change.  The base Life Book actually assists the child in writing their own story.  A Life Book is not a scrapbook of memories.  It is a specific therapeutic tool.  Examples or stories given along the way can open up a child, giving them an opportunity to process their own information which can involve issues such as anger and abandonment.

Reference Material:  Children in Foster Care and Adoption; A Guide to Bibliotherapy by John T. Pardeck and Jean A. Pardeck