How Books Can Help you Read Between the Lines
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How Books Can Help You Read between the Lines with Children’s Emotions

No sooner had my son turned 3 than he morphed into the Midnight Rambler. Abandoning his bed in the wee hours, he would wake me with cries of “I’m lonely! I can’t sleep! Keep me company!” By day, I searched the parenting section of the library for the miracle cure that would help us all get some shut-eye.

I did not find a cure, but not in a book for parents. It was a children’s book—Little Bunny’s Sleepless Night by Carol Roth and Valeri Gorbachev—that actually did the trick. A poor sleeper like my son, Little Bunny spends a night hopping from bed to bed visiting his friends Bear (a snorer), Skunk (a stinker), and Porcupine (ouch!). Through trial and error, he finally realizes that his own cozy bed is the perfect resting place. My son and I read the book each night and talked about how wonderful Little Bunny must feel snuggled under his own covers. We also did some redecorating to make my son’s bed equally welcoming. Within a week, the nighttime roaming tapered off and peace was restored.

Through sheer luck, I had stumbled upon the technique of bibliotherapy—the use of literature to help children understand and work through difficult situations and developmental stages. According to psychologist Mary Rizza, “Through reading, or being read to, a story similar to their own lives, children are able to experience and deal with an issue objectively which can then be applied to their own problems/issues.” With a well-chosen book, parents and teachers can help children cope with a wide variety of issues that commonly challenge preschoolers, such as greeting a new sibling, beginning kindergarten, managing moods, conflicts with friends and, yes, sleeping through the night. More serious emotional and behavioral problems should be treated clinically by a trained professional.

An Ideal Technique for Young Children

The cognitive development of preschool-age children makes them particularly amenable to bibliotherapy. They are concrete thinkers, learning far more than what they experience than from what they are told. At the same time, children between the ages of 3 and 5 are endowed with a rich fantasy life that allows them to enter fully into the stories they hear to lose themselves in imaginary worlds and to identify with fictitious characters. Bibliotherapy capitalizes on these cognitive attributes, offering children vicarious “teachable moments” that can feel as compelling and realistic as their own lives.

Appealing characters serve as surrogates for the child reader. Through Little Bunny, for example, my son safely indulged his fantasy of staying up late visiting friends. At the cathartic conclusion of the book, when the fed-up and exhausted rabbit finally returned to the haven of his own bed, my son shared in his tremendous sense of relief. Reading the book over and over for several nights (a practice young children particularly enjoy) cemented this learning process through repetition.

When Kids Won’t Talk—Read!

Directly probing a difficult issue in a child’s life tends to shut down communication by putting the child on the spot. By contrast, a literary portrayal of the same subject takes the spotlight off the child and shifts attention to a character. Children feel less vulnerable and defensive when confronting their problems secondhand. They also gain a reassuring sense of validation from the knowledge that they are not alone in what they are going through.

My neighbor’s 4-year-old son refused to talk with his parents about his upcoming tonsillectomy, even though worries clearly preoccupied him. Instead of pursuing the subject directly, his mom consulted some of the online lists of children’s books dealing with hospital visits. She chose Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark—a book about a young turtle anxiously awaiting surgery. She gathered ideas from the Prindle Institute’s guidelines and discussion questions related to the book before talking with her son about the turtle’s feelings and the details of hospital procedures. She encouraged his interest in drawing pictures of Franklin, whom he often pictured smiling in his recovery bed, surrounded by balloons and flowers. This low-stress method of providing factual information and opportunities for processing emotion went a long way toward allaying the boy’s fears.

Look beyond the Cover

Not all books lend themselves equally well to bibliotherapy. Parents and teachers should review several candidates before selecting the ones they will share with a child. The most useful books will exhibit traits identified by Cheryl Coon, author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to Using the Best Children’s Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. These include:

  • Characters we care about and believe in
  • Characters with believable emotions and reactions
  • Humor, surprise, or suspense
  • Creative problem solving
  • Engaging, eye-catching illustrations

Sometimes a well-crafted book is all a child needs to work through the issues that concern him. At other times, follow-up activities and conversation will be important aspects of bibliotherapy. By taking time to carry out this final step, parents and teachers communicate the message that it is safe to talk about distressing topics and that adults will always be available to help children understand and work through solutions to their problems.

Lists of bibliotherapy-friendly children’s books cataloged by specific childhood challenges: