“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
G. K. Chesterton
What is Developmental Bibliotherapy?
Developmental Bibliotherapy is a branch of Bibliography which usually takes place as part of a secondary school reading program using young adult fiction and designed to help young people navigate the many issues they encounter during their adolescence.
Inside contemporary young adult fiction, authors create authentic characters and anticipate their readers’ questions and concerns. Teens gain insights from characters living in similar situations, validating readers’ experiences and introducing them to language and options that may not have been previously known to them.
In this way, Young Adult Fiction becomes an effective way to break down the stigmas and stereotypes that are the major barrier preventing young people from seeking help for themselves or for others.
The objective of Developmental Bibliotherapy is to change the thoughts, beliefs and emotions related to mental health issues, enabling conversations and addressing fears, so that issues can be identified and addressed as early as possible.
And yet, while Developmental Bibliotherapy is easily incorporated into most school reading programs, its potential for changing the lives of young people by building resilience and equipping them with skills in preparation for a crisis or a troublesome situation, has not been given sufficient attention in the fight to save school libraries and librarians.
At a time when our children and young adults need their stories told more than ever, we are turning our back on their need by downsizing school libraries, abandoning library programs in favour of academic programs and moving teacher librarians into classrooms.
Confronting the ‘difficult’ topics in YA fiction.
During their teens, young adults refine their personal expectations, desires and values while simultaneously facing pressures and expectations from their peers, the adults around them, and the wider community.
Adolescence may involve issues of gender and sexuality, physical or mental illness, different ability and disability, otherness, grief, guilt, family issues, mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, relationship issues, peer pressures and significant life decisions, in addition to preparing for the 21st century issues that will confront them as an adult.
Young Adult fiction is becoming more edgy, reflecting readers’ desire for stories dealing with these ‘difficult’ and sometimes controversial topics. Young adults want to see characters who are empowered, informed and able to build fulfilling lives – developing coping strategies and participating in meaningful relationships even while accepting the setbacks confronting them.
Authors of contemporary Young Adult fiction are aware of their responsibility to represent the concerns and experiences of their audience respectfully and realistically in a way that is accessible and authentic without being didactic. In turn, Young Adult readers trust authors to give them accurate and relevant information, and answers to questions they may not know how to ask, in storylines that mirror the difficult issues they see amongst their peers.
On average, one in seven young Australians currently in secondary education will experience one of the common mental health illnesses in any given year. Others will experience mental health issues as a carer, friend or family member of someone experiencing mental health issues.
We experience good mental health as being in control of our emotions, able to make well considered decisions and having positive interactions with people around us. We meet life’s challenges with confidence in our own abilities, or seek help when we need it. We might say that our resilience is high.
When our mental health is poor, our resilience is low, and we become confused and fearful. Setbacks often escalate into more serious issues that significantly disrupt our daily activities and relationships. And although early intervention can minimise the amount of disruption caused by a mental illness and increase the rate of recovery, we are fearful and reluctant to seek help because of the common stereotypes and stigmas that surround mental illness.
And, while most teens readily discuss most aspects of their lives on social media, few feel able to discuss mental health concerns on these platforms.
Young people need access to an adult they can trust – non-judgemental, discreet and knowledgeable and available – to discuss their concerns. It has been said that one trusted adult can make a significant difference to an adolescent’s outcomes. Amongst their most trusted adults are teachers, librarians and the authors who speak through characters with whom they can identify.
Characters in Young Adult literature, introducing language to describe their experiences, enable readers to articulate their own experiences and help them facilitate their own real life conversations. Characters’ actions and experiences answer readers’ questions, validate their experiences, identify symptoms, explore options and explain treatments in ways that reduce the fear, eliminate the stigmas and shatter the stereotypes that may be preventing young people from discussing the way they are feeling or from seeking help.
Furthermore, as young people read about fictional characters experiencing a mental illness, they develop empathy, becoming more supportive of others with a mental illness, and feeling more able to seek help for friends or family members who may be unable to take the effective action needed to help themselves.
Being supported and equipped with appropriate vocabulary gives young people the confidence to share troubling thoughts and feelings with others and do so sooner, which improves the chances of better outcomes.
Developmental Bibliotherapy, implemented by teachers, parents, librarians and counsellors, can be a preventative strategy, mitigating the disruptive effects of mental health issues in adolescence.
For Developmental Bibliotherapy to have meaningful benefits, it requires cooperation, reading ability and desire on the part of the reader, a positive relationship between the reader and the therapist, and a skilful matching of reader with quality YA literature.
School based Developmental Bibliotherapy programs need to include guided discussions and planned activities if they are to maximize positive outcomes.
Humans are the story species – the only species able to communicate across time and space. Stories have helped us survive as a species; by increasing our ability to make decisions, solve problems and deal with stress and change, by allowing us to safely test out courses of action, by improving social communication, and by learning from others’ mistakes.
Bibliotherapy, the use of stories for personal growth and emotional healing, predates the written word. It is thought that storytelling emerged when primitive peoples harnessed fire and extended their wakening hours beyond sunset. Stories soothed fears, answered questions, stored knowledge, related heroic exploits and guided our physical and spiritual journeys.
Fiction validates our emotions and experiences, and fortifies our resilience. When we read fiction we learn vicariously. Fiction provides us with a safe place from which to explore our thoughts and feelings, and provides opportunities to rehearse our interactions with others.
Fiction promotes empathy by introducing us to diverse communities and showing us a wider variety of normal. Reading fiction provides us with models, helping us to define our boundaries and our values, and find answers within ourselves. And, by seeing our experiences in written form, fiction gives us the language to express ourselves.
Fiction helps us relieve stress and emotions in a controlled manner, gain insight into our own behaviour, see different perspectives and find alternative solutions. It allows us to see others experiencing similar problems so we feel less isolated and alone, and prepares us for some of the issues we may be anticipating with dread, encouraging us to face problems before they escalate.
Developmental Bibliotherapy must be implemented more widely in schools. It is an effective technique for helping children with a variety of topics – the advantages are many and the disadvantages are few.