Developmental Bibliotherapy – An ounce of prevention

Written by Judith Wakeman

If we could design a program for young adults with the aim of boosting good mental health, like a wellbeing vitamin, what would such a program look like?

Research tells us that these programs already exist. Positive wellbeing outcomes have been demonstrated with nature therapy, pet therapy, dance therapy, art therapy, laughter therapy, music therapy and bibliotherapy in individuals of all ages.

But how do they work?

And with the educational, social and global pressures that young people face in the 21st century, much research has been done to determine which personal qualities enable some young people to ride the roller coaster that is adolescence and emerge confident that they can forge their own path within the society they are set to inhabit; and how we can provide children and young adults with the education that enhances their own particular strengths in the 21st century.

Attributes and Character traits for the 21st century.

Alexander Stajkovic suggested that self efficacy, resilience, optimism and hope are four components of what he called Core Confidence, and which form the inner resources we as individuals need, in order to avoid being crushed by the setbacks we face during our lives.

Martin Seligman proposed that by eliminating three unhelpful beliefs - Personalisation (the belief that the problem lies with yourself), Permanence (the belief that the problem will never end) and Pervasiveness (the belief that the problem is all encompassing) – we are better placed to overcome challenging situations.

Seligman also proposed a comprehensive list of 24 Signature Strengths, in five broad groups,1 and suggested that each of us should identify one or more key strengths that we can use to our advantage and others that we can develop, with the aim of achieving our potential for wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment.

David Levin and Dominic Randolph narrowed Seligman’s list to seven key attributes - Grit, Self Control, Zest, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism and Curiosity - and Angela Duckworth, working with David Levin and Dominic Randolph, went further to identify just one characteristic necessary for academic success, “a perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” which she called Grit.

Camp Kulin, an Australian program for young people based in Western Australia, believes that every child will benefit from their program which aims to boost these life skills in their participants: leadership, respect, trust, self confidence, self respect, self esteem, emotional regulation, anger management and perseverance.

And just recently, research has reinforced the need for children to experience failure and risk with John Marsden, Australian author and school principal, commenting that “by limiting children’s exposure to danger, to fear, we are limiting their ability to mature, develop resilience and independence”.

So, how do we kindle these qualities in young people; how do we nurture them into self sustaining personal attributes?

Research tells us that we can do this by simply encouraging children to read!

What’s so special about books?

Parents and teachers easily spot the changes in a child when they first become an independent reader. They proudly and confidently enter new worlds inside the covers, meeting characters, exploring, questioning and finding answers, developing creativity and imagination; they are no longer dependant on others for their entertainment. They become separate from their parents and others around them while simultaneously becoming members of the grown-up world, able to communicate and share stories beyond their own limited experiences. 

As children read they learn that they can experience things as individuals, they become confident communicators, they become creative problem solvers, and they start to understand, recognise and relate to emotions. Their brain is learning vicariously, and these new skills, characteristics and attributes accompany developments in cognitive skills (thinking, problem solving, reasoning, remembering and concentration).

As they read they begin to develop a Theory of Mind - able to consider others’ perspectives and needs - and so they start to develop empathy and start caring for others. They learn about diversity as they read stories about how other people (or animals, or imaginary creatures like fairies, or inanimate objects like pencils) go about their lives, express their emotions and cope with different problems and situations.

They begin to learn that others experience similar feelings to themselves, such as nervousness, fearfulness or anger, and they begin to explore these feelings from a safe place within the pages of a book. They learn that sometimes bad things happen, sometimes good people fail and sometimes life isn’t fair, but that these times don’t last forever.

Characters in these first stories can help children start to think about how they want to live their lives and their own place in the world, and they help readers to explore different opportunities and possibilities. Children are developing and reflecting on their own personal values, but they are also confronting fears, taking risks, accepting failure, forming friendships, breaking barriers, challenging stereotypes and exploring alternative worlds, all within the safe pages of a book.

Along the journey from childhood to adulthood, young adults must balance pressures from family, school, friends and often social and cultural expectations, with a personal need to explore their potential, develop and express their individual values and styles, and test their own boundaries as they reflect on what it means to live “the good life”. Added to this are global pressures and the knowledge that their generation is facing an uncertain future with unforeseeable problems. 

As they face this journey, many young adult readers, perhaps in addition to the adults in their lives or perhaps in the absence of trustworthy adults, will find role models to assist and guide them from among the characters created by respected Young Adult authors.


Bibliotherapy and the Default Mode Network.

It is the function of the Default Mode Network (DMN), and its relationship to reading and mental health, that presents the most compelling case for more Developmental Bibliotherapy in schools.

The DMN is associated with task-unrelated thinking and has been described as “The brain running in neutral” activated “precisely when we detach ourselves from what's going on around us”(Noë, 2017).

The DMN is a network in the brain which is activated and fortified while reading, as well as during periods of REM and while daydreaming. Readers often experience the realisation that their thoughts and feelings are unrelated to the text in front of them, and that they have been repeatedly reading the same page or paragraph, only to find that they have not taken in a single word – this is the time when the DMN is active.

The DMN is responsible for:

  • Autobiographical Memory (forming memories of facts and events about one’s self, knowledge of personal traits and emotions);

  • Social information (developing a Theory of Mind, empathy, moral reasoning, intuition, stereotyping, social skills);

  • Applying Memories (recalling the past, imagining the future, comprehending narratives);

  • Spontaneous Thought (contributing to autopilot mode, creativity in problem solving, enabling snap decisions when facing unexpected situations).

The DMN supports our capacity to simulate hypothetical scenes, spaces and mental states, and reading fiction stimulates that part of the network involved in Theory of Mind. Disruption in DMN connectivity has been linked to mental health issues including depression, schizophrenia and alzhemiers.

In brief, the Default Mode Network is responsible for the stable use of learned information for predicting the world around us. It is active when thinking about ourselves or others, when remembering the past or planning for the future, and when interacting in social contexts. And it is stimulated when reading fiction.


Come along and hear my session in the Free Seminar Program at the National Education Summit Melbourne.


It is important to acknowledge that there are many categories falling under the mental illness diagnosis, and within these categories there are different underlying causes. These causes can be classified as biological, psychological and social. Furthermore, the difficulty of separating developmental issues from abnormal problems that require medical intervention (or as Australian comedian Alice Fraser describes it “a disaster thing or a coming-of-age thing”), the difficulties in diagnosing young people in whom emotional issues present as physical problems and uncovering hidden problems in young people who may struggle with language or trust, add to the complexities in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood and adolescent mental health.

However, all evidence indicates that early intervention is the key to minimising the impact of mental illness. Bibliotherapy increases the likelihood of early intervention by providing language and opening communication with trusted adults, by addressing Seligman’s “3Ps” by portraying characters in similar situations, by removing stigmas and shattering stereotypes, by increasing empathy and representing diversity, by reducing fear and isolation, and by representing a wider view of normal.

Learning from the experiences of fictional or real characters enables all of us to stand on their shoulders and thus experience a wider view of ourselves, the world and our place in it, and forces us to ask what type of life and world do we want for ourselves.

The evidence is clear – the most cost-effective way to provide mental health benefits to children and young adults begins with supporting school libraries, employing qualified library staff and timetabling meaningful library programs.

Reference list

Andrews-Hanna, J.R. (2011). The Brain’s Default Network and Its Adaptive Role in Internal Mentation. The Neuroscientist, [online] 18(3), pp.251–270. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jul. 2019].

Ellen, S. and Deveny, C. (2018). Mental : everything you never knew you needed to know about mental health. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc.

Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life : literature as a life support system. Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry And Whiteside.

Noe, A. (2017). Why Do Our Minds Wander? [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].

Seligman, M.E.P. (2013). Flourish : a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Atria.

Smallwood, J., Gorgolewski, K.J., Golchert, J., Ruby, F.J.M., Engen, H., Baird, B., Vinski, M.T., Schooler, J.W. and Margulies, D.S. (2013). The default modes of reading: modulation of posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex connectivity associated with comprehension and task focus while reading. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7.

Tamir, D.I., Bricker, A.B., Dodell-Feder, D. and Mitchell, J.P. (2015). Reading fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, [online] 11(2), pp.215–224. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jul. 2019].

Vatansever, D., Menon, D.K. and Stamatakis, E.A. (2017). Default mode contributions to automated information processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 114(48), pp.12821–12826. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].


1 Martin Seligman 24 Signature Strengths arranged in their five broad groups are:
1.Wisdom and Knowledge (Curiosity/Interest in the world; Love of Learning; Judgement/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness; Ingenuity/Originality/Practical Intelligence/Street Smarts; Social Intelligence/Personal Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence; Perspective)
2.Courage (Valor and Bravery; Perseverance/Industry/Diligence; Integrity/Genuineness/Honesty; Kindness and Generosity; Loving and Allowing Oneself to be Loved)
3.Justice (Citizenship/Duty/Teamwork/Loyalty; Fairness and Equality; Leadership)
4.Temperance (Self Control; Prudence/Discretion/Caution; Humility and Modesty; Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence)
5.Transcendence (Gratitude; Hope/Optimism/Future-Mindedness; Spirituality/Sense of Purpose/Faith/Religiousness; Forgiveness and Mercy; Playfulness and Humor; Zest/Passion/Enthusiasm)

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