Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 5)
It is impossible to overestimate the capacity of children to feel, suffer, and understand. This speaks to life problems including death, debilitating illnesses, or severe marital discourse. Child can share their feelings though literature, but it must be in terms of action and plot.
What we bring to a story
Affects what we take from a story
That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.
~ Doris Lessing
As adults wrestle with what type of information we offer our children through reality-based literature, we would be well advised to understand that the story is viewed through each individual’s window of life experiences. Note that if a description of an old woman sitting on a park bench included the notation that she grinned a crooked grin and spoke using only one side of her mouth, the juvenile reader would only understand that this person has probably been affected by a stroke if the child brings to the book a pre-existing understand of a cerebral vascular accident (stroke) and knew some of the more common after affects. He could then incorporate this characters condition into his overall understanding of how this particular moment fits into the plot and meaning of the story. If the child has no such reference the scene will be read, but in general be passed over unnoticed. In the book, Bibliotherapy for Bereaved Children, they had ten children read the story Squib. Six of the children were non-bereaved and four had experienced the death of a loved one. All children were between the ages of 10 and 14. After they had read the book their opinions and responses where tape-recorded and then transcribed. There is an obvious difference in the way in which these two different groups of children spoke about and understood the book. The ideas that they found interesting or insightful, frightening or sorrowful were obviously colored by their life experiences. For example, one child found it interesting how the character spoke to the picture of her dead brother because she had done similar things. She was living vicariously through this character, and one might even surmise, was taking comfort in the connection she had made with this person. For another child this same scene was described as strange or weird, but seemed not to elicit any type of emotional response. There is no doubt but that there has been an increase in the social realism present in today’s fiction. Many of these books are reaching a teenage audience, but some are being read by younger children. There is a group of professionals with a less-than-enthusiastic opinion of these books that deal with subjects such death, drugs and sex.
In general, however, most writers and educators believe that this growth in children’s literature has served the reader well.
A successfully communicated thought,
from one human mind to another,
is one of the most powerful forces I know.
~ Peter McWilliams
How Reading Can Heal
A strong relationship between reader and fictionalized characters can be forged through shared life experiences. The power of these connections is often predicated on the skill of the writer as much as it is on the subject matter of the book. Bereavement, created by the death of a friend or family member, arguably tops the list of emotionally charged issues that might be dealt with in a book with potential therapeutic value. Death is considered an environmental issue. There are other types of deaths and other environmental conditions that hold the potential to cause havoc in the mental stability of a child. Divorce, serious illness, sudden disability and war are some other environmental tragedies that children can be forced to cope with. By sharing common experiences with a character in a book the child is offered an opportunity to make an emotional link that may serve to bring to the reader many different kinds of benefits.
When you live in the shadows of insanity the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blissed event
~ Ani Difranci
Many benefits can be brought to a child who reads fiction where life problems are presented in a realistic fashion and are intertwined into a plot that is, at least in part, reflective of the reader’s life. A common byproduct of such an encounter is a reduction in the sense of isolation. Children may feel isolated for a host of reasons. They may actually be cut off by a family who finds talking about the sorrowful even too draining and so the subject becomes taboo and off limits. In the reverse context, the child may be afraid of their feelings and withdraw into a form of self-isolation. The sense of aloneness is often accentuated by the near certain belief that no one could possibly understand how they are feeling.