By Merriam Saunders, LMFT
Professor and author Rudine Sims Bishop once famously wrote, “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” Sometimes, those books become sliding doors into which children can enter a completely different reality to explore with their and the author’s imagination. And other times, books act as mirrors, reflecting a child’s inner and outer experience.
Books as mirrors can be a safe and approachable way for children to explore their world of emotions and behaviors. Young children often have difficulty verbalizing feelings and lack awareness of the impact of their behaviors. Within the safety of a story, however, the young reader may identify their own needs, feelings and behaviors with those of a character navigating a dilemma similar to their own.
For children struggling with certain mental health issues, traumas or intense emotions, books can help:
Identify and validate feelings
Foster a discussion without defensiveness and shame
Create a mindfulness
Discover coping skills, solutions and a new course of action
How You can Help a Young Reader
Read the book first
Be aware that some material may be triggering for the child, or not appropriate for their physical or mental age, experience or background.
Kids can smell a rat! Check the book for reality, sensitivity and accuracy of material and character reactions.
Decide on Mode
For the more mature young reader, it may be best to have them read on their own. Make yourself available to discuss the material by asking open-ended questions (What did you like about that book? Who was your favorite character?), without pushing the topic. Let the child know you are happy to talk about the book, if they want.
When reading to younger children, it is easier to make comparisons and ask direct questions, either during or after the story. The younger child may need an adult to help make overt connections between the subject matter and their felt experience.
Use caution when reading aloud to a group if you know the book reflects one child’s experience in that group. While the book could create empathy in the group for that child, it may also embarrass or isolate.
Be sensitive to emotions the story may evoke and be sure follow-up support is readily available by teacher, parent or counselor.
Activities to Accompany Bibliotherapy
Ask the reader to verbally summarize the story to gauge understanding
Ask open-ended questions about the story and characters--
How is your favorite character like you? How are they different?
Did the character make a choice you would not have made?
Was there a moment in the story where you felt (mad, scared, sad, etc?)
What is hard about this character’s life? What is easy?
Ask the reader to draw a favorite scene
Have a group act out the story or favorite scene
Create the next scene of the story or a sequel
Create a comic strip
Ask older readers to write a reaction piece
Have the reader change a part of the story they didn’t like
As Rudine Sims Bishop concluded, “Children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit.”
Our mission at A Novel Mind is to help you discover that book.
Bishop, R. S., Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors, Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vo 6, no. 3. Summer 1990.