Developmental Bibliotherapy in Young Adult Fiction: Why Teens need books now more than ever
Written by Judith Wakeman
Bibliotherapy, the use of stories for personal growth and emotional healing, predates the written word. From earliest times stories have soothed fears, answered questions, stored knowledge and guided our physical and spiritual journeys. Bibliotherapy can involve fiction, non-fiction or poetry, and can take place as an adjunct to psychotherapy or in a discussion with friends, booksellers or librarians.
My session in the Free Seminar Program National Education Summit Melbourne, will focus on Developmental Bibliotherapy, a branch of Bibliography which usually takes place in school settings and is designed to guide young people through the many issues they encounter during their developmental years.[i] I will also discuss bibliotherapy in the context of three areas of significant concern for young people and their school communities.
By anticipating students’ needs and questions, by giving them insight into stories of young adults living in similar situations, by validating their experiences, and by introducing students to language and options that may not have been previously available to them, Developmental Bibliotherapy becomes an effective preventative therapy, breaking down stigmas and stereotypes that prevent young people from seeking help.
While many school reading programs fall into this category, few, if any, would be recognised or valued as Developmental Bibliotherapy. And yet reading programs, by building resilience and equipping young people with skills in preparation for a crisis or a troublesome situation, have the potential to change beliefs, behaviours, outcomes and lives.
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 programs in favour of academic programs and moving teacher librarians into classrooms.
Confronting the ‘difficult’ topics in YA fiction.
Young adults are refining their personal expectations, desires and values while simultaneously facing pressures and expectations from their peers, the adults around them, and the wider community. Normal adolescence may involve issues of gender and sexuality, physical or mental illness and disability, otherness, grief, 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’ demands for stories dealing with these ‘difficult’ and sometimes controversial topics. And 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. 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.
In 2019, 70% of US teens, identify anxiety and depression as their major concern, either for themselves or as a concern for their peers.[ii] Australian young adults are no different. On average, one in seven young Australians currently in secondary education will experience one of the common mental health illnesses in any given year.[iii] Others will experience mental health issues as a carer or see a family member 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 resilience is low, we become confused and fearful, and setbacks often escalate into more serious issues that significantly disrupt our daily activities and relationships. But, 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.
However, while most teens readily discuss most aspects of their lives on social media, they do not 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 on mental health issues. 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, using 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 a way that reduces the fear and stigmas 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 feel 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.
Eating disorders and Self Harm
Books dealing with eating disorders and self-harm need to be addressed as a separate issue in this discussion of Bibliotherapy for Young Adults. There is an inexplicable competitiveness surrounding eating disorders as for some people “all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do."[iv]
It is clear that YA Authors take their responsibility seriously in this as in other areas. Laurie Halse Anderson was so aware of this responsibility that before the publication of Wintergirls, she submitted her script to experts on the subject of eating disorders. Their response was "we have a culture that glamorises this. Turning on the television triggers people - turning on the computer, seeing a billboard, walking past a magazine rack.” So her challenge was to ensure that Wintergirls told the whole story.
Elena Vanishing: a Memoir by Elena Dunkle describes how difficult it was for the author to accept her problem and ask for help – an echo of her personal battle with an eating disorder.
Girl in pieces by Kathleen Glasgow begins with the protagonist in a treatment facility after a serious episode self-harm. The complex thoughts behind the decisions to self-harm are insights generously shared by the author from her own personal experiences.
These books may act as a conversation starter that creates understanding, and can also provide insights for people caring for young adults experiencing these disorders. However, it is important that adults are aware of books dealing with eating disorders and self-harm, and aware when students are reading them.
Jay Asher’s 13 reasons why is not the first YA novel to address suicide, but when it became a televised miniseries it attracted the concerns of parents afraid that talking or reading about suicide may prompt young people to take the same course of action. Evidence says that the opposite is more likely to be the case – a discussion of suicide does not initiate thoughts of suicide if they are not already present, but enabling someone to discuss suicidal thoughts, whether with friends or family, is more likely to prevent them from putting those thoughts into action.[v]
At the core of 13 reasons why is the death by suicide of a teenage girl. The novel addressed teen suicide, mental illness, reputation-worship, gossip and slander, nearsighted impulsivity, sexual abuse, and malignant narcissism. These issues resonated with teens and had a significant impact on those who read the story. The novel neither glamorised nor preached, instead leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Teens commented that this book made them realise how their actions could have unforeseen consequences, how seemingly small things can be compounded to produce a significant but unforeseen effect, and how we never fully realise what is going on behind the scenes for a person who we think we know quite well.
And, because the main character was guilty of inaction, it also contained a plea to those who might otherwise remain bystanders.
Bibliotherapy can provide a different purpose for gifted teens for whom literature studies often means studies of classical literature. The adolescent experiences of gifted teens may be quite different to that of many of their peers because of their typically higher emotional intelligence, sensitivity and maturity.
But gifted teens also want to fit in to a social group, and develop and refine a personal identity which embraces their special talents and abilities. So it is important that age-appropriate novels written by respected authors of YA literature are also carefully selected for this oft overlooked group, so they feel valued in a world which may have different demands and expectations of them.
Developmental Bibliotherapy implemented by teachers, parents, librarians and counsellors can be a preventative strategy for teens but should not be seen as a substitute for long-range therapeutic intervention by a psychologist or psychiatrist where necessary. Bibliotherapy is not a panacea but it can be an effective adjunct to other treatments.
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.
“For avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others.”[vi]
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.
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.[vii]
[i] Olsen, M., 2006, Bibliotherapy: School psychologists’ report of use and efficacy.
[ii] Horowitz J., Graf N., 2019, Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers, PEW Research Centre.
[iii] Kelly C., Kitchener B., Jorm A., 2013, Youth Mental Health First Aid (Manual), 3rd Edition, MHFA Australia.
[iv] Anonymous in Parker-Pope, Tara, The troubling allure of eating-disorder books, The New York Times, May 11 2009.
[v] Kelly C., Kitchener B., Jorm A., 2013, Youth Mental Health First Aid (Manual), 3rd Edition, MHFA Australia.
[vi] Dovey, Ceridwen, Can reading make you happier? The New Yorker June 9 2015.
[vii] Olsen, M., 2007, Bibliotherapy: School psychologists’ report of use and efficacy, Brigham Young University.